Author: Susan Pagani

The Power of Potlikker

In the antebellum South, “potlikker” referred to the broth that was left over from a pot of greens. The masters ate the greens; slaves got the broth. Today, writes John T. Edge in The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (Penguin Press, 2017), locavore chefs use potlikker to give dishes such as poached mountain trout an authentic Southern umami. It turns out potlikker is just one of many foods that form a through line connecting everything from racial equity and cultural appropriation to immigration and food trends. Take the 1955 bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, during which people used their own cars to transport African American laborers to work. Drivers needed money for insurance, gas, and tires, but many riders were too hard-pressed to contribute. Cook and midwife Georgia Gilmore organized a club to raise the money by selling home-cooked fried fish and fluted pound cakes. The club inspired more cooks, and together they helped keep cars on the road until the successful end of the 13-month strike. Read more [Appeared in …

The Craftsman of Yore is No More

When you write about food, people like to ask you for a favorite restaurant. For me, favorite means different things, and so there has never been just one. I have a favorite for out-of-town guests and fancy occasions, for breakfast, for pizza, and for Korean food. But the most important favorite is the neighborhood restaurant I go to at least once a week because the wait staff is lovely, the atmosphere is charming, and the food is, without fail, great. For a long time, for years, that was the Craftsman Restaurant & Bar. A dear friend and I used to meet there once a week to hash out our life and work conundrums over the Craftsman’s fantastic Manhattans (a toothpick stacked with house-macerated sour cherries before they were a thing), or for the brief time they were available, the wonderfully tanniny Emily’s Sumac. We liked the hummus, smoky and garlicky and surrounded by simple but pleasing vegetables — bright pink watermelon radishes, pickled cauliflower, parboiled green beans, and such. Another good memory: Early one summer evening, …

In Favor of Rustica’s Polenta Bread

In these parlous days, Rustica’s Polenta Bread (available on Mondays) offers solace. The crust is crunchy, and the inside is cool and airy and squishy soft. It smells like popcorn, and tastes like corny, slightly sour, very luxurious white bread. Toasted or not, it is magic with salty butter — just the thing to calm the heart and smooth down the hackles. [Appeared in Heavy Table. Photo Credit: Rustica Bakery]

Two zebra finches snuggling on a twig

An Interview about “Fledgling”

Writer Keith Lesmeister has a blog called “Life as a Shorty.” Each week he picks a short story and uses it to talk about craft, either by exploring some aspect of the piece or interviewing the writer. Earlier this month, we talked about my short story “Fledgling,” which recently published in Rappahannock Review. You can read the story here. ***** Keith Lesmeister: The story starts out with this horrific, nightmarish scenario, which draws readers in immediately. And while I had thought initially that the story would be about the parents who lost the child, it wasn’t about that at all. Did you know, upon starting this piece, that that would be the case? Was this always going to be about Mary Beth? Susan Pagani: Yes, it was always Mary Beth’s story. There was a draft where I began with Mary Beth and the finches, thinking that would help the reader understand it was her story and create more of a build to the actual accident. It didn’t work as well for me. I felt the accident needed to …

Two zebra finches snuggling on a twig

Short Story: The Fledgling

A child had died in the neighborhood. A four-year-old girl called Molly. The day it happened, there had been snow. Molly and her mother, Sarah, went out to shovel the front steps. They took the dog, an eager, young chocolate Labrador. The snow was heavy and wet, the kind that packs well. Molly had just learned to make snowballs. Afterwards, the neighbors would point to the steep slope of the yard, the tiered garden beds, the rows of shrubbery wrapped in misshapen bundles of burlap and twine. There was no space to play, and the child was always running around in the boulevard. Molly had hurled a snowball into the street and followed as the dog went after it. Neither of them noticed the car, but Sarah, hearing the crunch of tires in snow, looked up from the shovel and said, “Molly, stop! Car!” The little girl halted, teetering at the curb, still laughing at the Labrador as it scrambled to find the snowball in the white slush of the road. The car rolled forward …

Open Arms of MN Annual Report

Annual Report: OAM

This year Open Arms celebrated a major milestone: thirty years of providing meals for people with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Our strategy for their annual report was to talk about the many things that had changed over the decades — and the many, many wonderful things that had stayed the same. To do this, we interviewed past and present volunteers, clients and donors, and told the organization’s story through their stories. This juxtaposition of past and present allowed us to weave in 2015 results, creating a book that highlights the year’s growth, as well as three decades of community support and nutritious, delicious food. Read more

Diversity is a Tremendous Strength

Word limits are word limits, and sometimes editors have to trim good stuff out of stories. So here’s another outtake from one of mine. In September, I wrote a piece for Civil Eats about the Seward Co-op, which had recently made a series of necessary changes to its hiring policy in order to get more people of color onto its staff. In the course of our interview, Leila Wolfrum, a co-op manager in Durham, North Carolina, stopped the conversation to make a point that was later cut but now — in the aftermath of our election last week — seems critical to the story. The Durham co-op has been open for a year and a half and employs 45 people, 32 of whom identify as people of color. As Wolfrum told me, diversity in the co-op is important for several reasons: it brings jobs to the people who live in the community, it creates a grocery store that reflects and welcomes the community it serves, and it’s just good business. “I think it’s important to recognize that diversity is not something we’re doing solely for the health …

The Hidden Lives of Owls

Giving a Hoot

In The Hidden Lives of Owls (Sasquatch Books, August 2016), naturalist Leigh Calvez explores her newfound curiosity about owls—tagging along with wildlife biologists and citizen scientists for a year as they study 11 Pacific Northwest species. This illuminating journey into owl lore, habits, and biology also provides an insightful look at regional efforts to protect the bird and its habitats from human industry and climate change. On one outing, Calvez and a team of forest service “hooters” visit one of central Washington’s few remaining old-growth forests, bushwhacking through dead trees and brush to check on a pair of rare nesting spotted owls. Calvez puts a live mouse on a branch and offers it to the male owl, who delivers it to the female—a sure sign that she is sitting on eggs. “The hope for spotted owls on the eastern slopes of the Cascades rested squarely on this nest,” she writes. Read more [Appeared in Sierra Magazine]

Casey Holley

The Grain Expectations of Casey Holley

“A lot of people have forgotten that beer is a mostly agricultural product,” Casey Holley says. “There’s people growing hops in Minnesota, there’s people growing grain in Minnesota, and their livelihood depends on it. And for me, I just kind of lost that connection that these ingredients have stories, and they’re based in history and family and tradition and flavor and all these cool things that we care about.” Holley is the proprietor of Able Seedhouse + Brewery, which opened a year ago in a Northeast Minneapolis building that used to be a maintenance garage for school buses. It came with the slope-to-drain floors and high ceilings conducive to brewing and the giant roll-up doors conducive to a light-filled, airy taproom — and, at 10,000 square feet, enough space to accommodate a malthouse. The latter was important to Holley, who named his company “seedhouse” because it was always his intention to make his own malt from Minnesota grains. Thus far it hasn’t been easy: Malting is expensive and labor intensive, and five years in, he’s just at the early experimentation stage. …

Department and store managers at Seward Co-op Friendship Store

Building a More Diverse Co-op Grocery Store

At a few minutes before 8 a.m. on a weekday morning in Minneapolis, there’s a small crowd of people waiting for the front door of the Seward Community Co-op Friendship Store to slide open for the day. They stand under a sign that says, “Everyone Welcome,” and it seems true when Jerry Williams, a department manager, arrives to unlock the door. “Let me at ‘em!” he says and greets the waiting shoppers like old neighbors, even clasping hands with a few of them before they go inside. Things haven’t always been so harmonious between the community and the cooperative grocery store. For 44 years, the Seward Co-op has been an anchor in the Seward neighborhood, where it operates a grocery store and, more recently, a restaurant. In 2013, the co-op announced it was going to spend $11.5 million to open a second grocery store about four miles southwest of Seward in the Bryant neighborhood. At the time, the people who ran the co-op assumed the community would welcome the new store. There wasn’t a conventional grocery store …