Friday, 11 January 2013

Playing with (and Learning through) Food

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Joy (Snowville's Marketing Manager) who was in search of anyone who might be available later in the evening to help with an event at the Columbus area location of Earth Fare. The management of "the healthy supermarket," as it is tag-lined, expected anywhere between 100-125 people for its weekly Family Dinner Night. As luck would have it, my schedule happened to be flexible enough to allow me to help out and join in on the fun. Begun on May 13, 2010, and every Thursday since then, the FDN program offers a free meal for up to six kids with the purchase of a $5+ adult entrée. Along with a 1/2 adult-size portion entrée option, each kids meal also includes a serving of fruit and a bottle of water. A great and innovative program, it continues to operate with the recognition that "eating together, access, and affordability are keys to eliminating the childhood obesity epidemic." Moreover, it became clear throughout the event that food--the cornerstone of the supermarket and program--brought people and families together. But what was even more fascinating to me was the amount of learning that was taking place, learning that (of course) took place through food.

In addition then to the food and the space that are provided by Earth Fare, a local organisation comes in to provide activities for the kids (and their relatives of all kinds). Having previously worked with youth, Joy arrived at Earth Fare ready to go with crafts and interactive toys that spoke to a wide range of kids and personalities. At the focal point, however, was the opportunity for kids and in some cases their parent/guardian to make their own butter. And that's where we came in.

After unloading all of the materials and setting up, Evelyn (a fellow Snowvillain who hands out samples of Snowville products in the Columbus area) began churning Snowville's whipping cream with a vintage butter churner. The churner involved a mechanism that operated wooden paddles that would create enough agitation to whip and then eventually separate the butter solids from the cream. As I learned, the closer to room temp the whipping cream is at the quicker of a process one has to go through in order to yield 50% butter and 50% buttermilk. Due to the large quantity, this would turn out to be a process that involved about 45 minutes of hand cranking.

Meanwhile, we had substantially smaller plastic containers for the kids to work with. And especially after having led many of my Division colleagues in a hand shaken butter session, I was more than prepared to give the kids smaller amounts of whipping cream to shake. On some level though I hadn't quite anticipated the varying levels of speculation, commitment and endurance to the activity which weren't all that dissimilar to that of my colleagues. Concurrently, I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the adult reactions to how simple of an activity this was, as well as the amount of control one has in boosting up the flavour profile of the pure, creamy end product. Indeed, there's nothing more to making butter than giving it a shake (and, as Evelyn put it, in shaking out a butter dance).

I'm not entirely sure how many people ended up going through the activity or at least ate dinner together as a family, but it certainly felt during different periods as if we were working with 200. In reality, I can say we went through at least four half gallon containers of whipping cream (for each kid, I probably poured out about 1/4 to just under 1/2 c); and we went through sample cup portions of six half gallon containers of chocolate milk. Throughout and by the end of the night, I remembered/learned:
  • First and foremost, it's very encouraging to see families and friends so engaged with each other around food-related experiences and activities.
  • If you're really into the activity, so too will the participants.
  • Working for Snowville is fun. 
  • After having tasted butter made with Snowville's whipping cream (i.e., the good stuff), I don't think I can ever go back. Or at least, I don't think I'll ever have butter with as great a flavour.
  • When working with plastic containers it is extremely important that you do not open the lids until you're done shaking. In the process, and because the whipping cream is rather cold, the pressure from all the shaking as well as the temperature shift tend to warp the plastic. This translates to a not-so-tight-seal of the lid which, if you don't hold onto the lid as you shake the container, it is very possible and quite likely the whipping cream will make a bit of a mess (which happened at least four times throughout the three-hour event).
  • Again after having guided quite a few at this point in the butter creation process, it is possible to tell when you're done just by sight alone. You'll go from a thick coating within the container to something rather granular and then all of a sudden find your butter solids clumped together sitting in a pool of rendered buttermilk. Also, the products will transition from white to pale to butter yellow.
  • However, and especially if your containers are more opaque than clear, sight in my experience is not the best gauge of when you're done. Trusting the process, the best sense is that of hearing. As I shared (and with a few skeptical stares back), I say shake the container filled with whipping cream until you hear nothing, and then shake the container until you hear something. As soon as you hear nothing, you've volumised the heavy cream into freshly whipped cream; give it about 10 more shakes and you'll get whipped cream with a soft peaks consistency. Though it seems like nothing is happening, continue shaking. You may hear a distinctly muffled thump at which point the cream has begun clumping together and turning granular. It's this more solid mass that is hitting the sides of the container. If you think you were tired before, you need to exert a bit more energy by this point as you're now trying to separate the solids from the liquid. Eventually, you'll hear the butter and liquid hitting the sides of the container and then the magical sound of butter sloshing in the buttermilk appears out of seemingly nowhere. Depending on quantity, temperature and shaking speed, the process can range anywhere from 5-15 minutes.
  • Be sure to strain out the buttermilk when you're done. (You can save it for later use.) The buttermilk is acidic; if the butter stays in the buttermilk it will spoil a lot quicker than if it's kept separate from it. 
  • Given the aforementioned, patience is a virtue. And the rewards of butter and buttermilk (or freshly whipped cream for the not-so-patient) are very much worth it. This activity, when done right, instills on some level both of these messages.
  • To the freshly whipped cream, you can stir in some powdered sugar or, as we did last night, maple syrup. To the butter, you can certainly season it yourself with salt as we did. In the past, I've added herbs (e.g., basil, oregano) as well as berries
  • Of special note, the staff at Earth Fare are welcoming, attentive and enthusiastic. I'd like to especially thank them for the kind thank you gifts they gave Joy, Evelyn and me at the end of the event, as well as some slices of pizza for dinner. 
  • In addition, I'd like to note that I'm wicked excited to soon use Snowville's whole milk to make fresh mozzarella; I learned recently that what I've been making as of late is farmer's cheese. There really isn't enough bacteria to make mozzarella in most commercial milks, even if it is non-ultrapasteurized.
  • As an aside: I'm not sure what it is lately, but apparently I enjoy eating pizza that's at least the size of my face.

To conclude this post, I'd like to share the above photo of Evelyn's final product: butter, beautiful butter. Here, she's kneaded it into a smooth, cohesive form, having also run it under cold water until the water ran clear (i.e., no more buttermilk to extract). For these and other photos from this event, click here. And while you're heading over to Facebook anyway, check out this photo taken and composed and posted on the Earth Fare Facebook page by an EF employee.

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