Frank Stitt’s Secret: Eating from the Earth

Frank Stitt’s Secret: Eating from the Earth

Frank Stitt’s Secret: Eating from the Earth

Katie Rogers

Katie Rogers is a Birmingham-based writer, feng shui consultant, and filmmaker. You can watch her documentary “CarLess in LA” currently on YouTube). She was happy to attend the E.O. Wilson Lecture with Harvard alumna Gasp Board Member Karen Shepard (who happens to be a climate change expert and Huffington Post writer) and Gasp Outreach Director Kirsten Bryant. Together,  they collectively gushed over the environmental slant of Frank Stitt’s lecture (AND the olive oil cake).

When a friend asked me to be her guest at the Harvard Club’s annual E.O. Wilson Distinguished Lecture Series, where there would be a “Conversation with Chef Frank Stitt,” I was all in. After all, everyone in Birmingham knows the name Frank Stitt. He’s the head chef and owner of four of Birmingham’s most beloved restaurants: Chez Fon Fon, Bottega, Bottega Café, and the now legendary, Highlands Bar and Grill. I thought it would be fun to hear what he had to say, and of course, there was the lure of good food, wine, and an interesting crowd.

Coincidentally, just days after the invitation, Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Highlands beat out competition in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago for this prestigious honor as the best restaurant in the United States.  Score for Highlands. Score for Birmingham. Score for Alabama.

Being somewhat of foodie, I was now especially excited to hear him speak. However, the last thing I expected to hear from him is that his stance on food is actually a profound environmental message.

What I gathered from the lively dialogue between he and Catherine Sloss Jones is that his secret to great cuisine is the integrity of the ingredients. Furthermore, he suggested that where there are great ingredients, there is healthy earth.

Images: (1) Katie Rogers, Frank Stitt, Pardis Stitt, Karen Shepard and Kirsten Bryant; (2) Gasp Board Member, Karen Shepard and Outreach Director, Kirsten Bryant, discuss the connection between food and a healthy planet with Chef Frank Stitt; and (3) Strawberry and mascarpone olive oil cake made by James Beard award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles.

He mentioned how pesticides and herbicides and other chemicals were adversely affecting the “vitality” of the soil and therefore the taste and texture of food. He mused about farming “going back to a time before the 1950s” and the importance of farmer’s markets. When asked a question about where he sees the culinary experience going in the next fifty to sixty years, he commented that he sees people eating more grains and vegetables and less protein.

To summarize: he believes in eating from the Earth. He also believes that to eat (well) from the Earth, the Earth must be not only intact, but thriving.

Delightfully, Frank Stitt’s commentary was far from preachy. In actuality, I’m not sure he would even call himself an environmentalist; his environmentalism is more a means to an end. He sincerely wants the best of the best on the table. He wants to provide a dining experience that has the potential to be a thing of “beauty.” His love of cooking is evident; his passion is food, plain and simple. One could almost feel a tear coming to his eye when he talked about the “best green bean.”

His success in the culinary world doesn’t come from science experiments or performance art in the kitchen, but can be boiled down to good, old-fashioned farming and a good, old-fashioned respect for the Earth.

What interests me in Stitt’s farm-to-table comments is that it could and should inspire foodies and environmentalists alike to the importance of taking a holistic view when it comes to considering the state of our planet. Food is plant life. And plants depend on air, water, soil, and the sun to grow and thrive. Yet the rise in the planet’s temperatures and the severity of today’s natural disasters are changing our watersheds, impacting how soil releases and traps carbon dioxide, therefore tipping the quality of our air, which of course in turn, traps more greenhouse gases so that the cycle perpetuates itself.   It’s safe to state bluntly that food – and food culture — is at the mercy of climate change and how the Earth’s systems interact with each other.

Sure, Frank Stitt is all about the ironed linens and the perfectly plated meals, but beyond that, he is really and truly interested in dirt. I wonder — could Frank Stitt’s message have the potential to reach an audience that may have turned the other cheek to the notion of climate change?

While my environmentalist self wants to shout out, “Duh, taking care of the planet means better food. Jeez!” my foodie self wants to say between mouthfuls of dessert, “Well, if caring for the environment means maintaining the awesomeness of strawberry and mascarpone olive oil cake from Dolester Miles [pastry chef at Highlands and winner of the 2018 James Beard award for most outstanding pastry chef in America], then well, yeah, please, I’m absolutely for it.”

Because, YUM.

What I Learned Working at Gasp: A High School Intern’s Point of View

What I Learned Working at Gasp: A High School Intern’s Point of View

This blog post was written by Cayla, our work study intern for the past two semesters.

Interning here at Gasp from Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School through a Corporate Work Study program, I learned many different things about the environment that I did not know. My experience with Gasp has changed my perspective in different situations.

I learned how to find people on the internet just by their name, address, phone number, etc. (We were working on a mailing list for Gasp newsletters and needed to make sure the addresses were up to date.) I got the chance to help gather information that helps improve the work process. I helped get information about schools so Gasp could talk to them about education programs.

I also got the chance to learn about the different air qualities and how bad air affects the environment and the people through a website called Southern Exposure. I created two binders based on different air monitors around the state of Alabama. In those binders it tells what air monitors check for by pollutant from 2011 to 2016. I have also gotten the opportunity to sit in on meetings and take in how it feels to be in meetings with different people from different age ranges. I got to be in my very first webinar.

But most importantly, I have gotten to meet some amazing people. They are Kirsten Bryant, Haley Lewis, and Michael Hansen. They have taught me great things! They provided me with helpful advice and the conversations were also amazing. We could talk about anything and they would listen to you. I even learned a better way to fold shirts while interning here. They are super nice, cheerful, supportive, and inviting people. I have met other great interns while working here. It is a quiet and peace environment to work in. I would definitely work here again next year! 🙂

Using Comedy to Lift Spirits, Raise Awareness

Using Comedy to Lift Spirits, Raise Awareness

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Gasp is teaming up with the Alabama Rivers Alliance to host a unique event Sunday, March 26 at Cahaba Brewing Company. “A Viscous Cycle: Thick Comedy” seeks to lift spirits and connect supporters of the two organizations.

Gwen Sunkel and Carson Tumey have made a name for themselves in the Indianapolis comedy scene and are taking their act on the road. The Birmingham stop is part of a seven-city comedy tour this month. They tout their comedy as a blend of “a delicious dose of wit with a scoop of silliness and add a dash social awareness.” Sunkel and Tumey will be joined by Alabama comedians Chris Ivey and Hallie Tarpley for a Birmingham-style Sunday Funday not to be missed.

“There has been so much negative news recently related to environmental protection and health policy,” said Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen.

“It can be overwhelming to keep up with it, and if you don’t practice ‘self-care,’ it can really bring you down. So when Gwen and Carson offered to come to Birmingham for a benefit show, we jumped at the opportunity to make folks laugh and connect with local beer and food. It’s a win-win for everyone!”

A VIP reception will be held at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 and include admission, drink tickets, food, and a membership to both organizations. General admission is $10 and student tickets are $5. Doors open at 5 p.m. The show will last for about 90 minutes. Organizers invite guests to hang around until the brewery closes at 8:30 for networking and games. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door. (RSVP on Facebook for updates and giveaways.)

Event sponsors include Rojo, Kinetic Communications, and Jamm Entertainment Services.

For more information, contact Michael Hansen at 205-701-4270 or via email.

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This is Why I Gasp

This is Why I Gasp

by Will King, Gasp Summer Research Fellow

As we head outdoors to enjoy the sunny days and vibrant colors of spring, the quality of the air we breathe may be the last thing on our minds. May is Clean Air Month, a time devoted to bringing increased awareness to eliminating air pollution and cleaning up the invisible substance that gives us life. Spring can also be a time when many allergy, asthma, and respiratory disease sufferers must retreat indoors to prevent exacerbations of their illness.

Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors — including children, seniors, and  pregnant women, groups that are among the most susceptible to the lasting effects of particle pollution, or PM for short. PM is actually a mixture of microscopic solid and liquid particles and it can include substances like heavy metals that are the product of industrial processes (like steelmaking and coke manufacturing), coal-fired power plants, and vehicle emissions.

When we breathe in these tiny foreign particles, several things happen inside our bodies. If the particles are small enough, they may pass directly into the bloodstream along with fresh oxygen. These heavy metal particles like lead, titanium, and chromium are all dangerous in large doses to our body, causing or worsening heart problems, leading to dementia, or causing several types of cancer.

If the PM particles are too big to be carried directly to the bloodstream, they sit in the lungs and get trapped by our bronchioles, which look like branches of a tree. In the short-term they can cause irritation and breathing difficulty, while long-term exposure is associated with lung and cardiovascular diseases.

If you or someone you know has asthma, emphysema, or COPD, inhaling these particles may trigger respiratory distress, which if not treated, can be deadly. Expectant mothers can be especially at risk, and studies have shown that preterm birth is directly linked to air pollution exposure in the second trimester.

I joined Gasp this Spring as a research fellow, which means I get to investigate first-hand how polluted and toxic the central Alabama air we breathe is. I also joined Gasp so I could advocate for you and stress the importance of cleaner air to our elected officials. With our team at Gasp, we are working to put an end to air pollution in Birmingham, and I am so proud to be a part of it.

This is why I Gasp, and so should you! Join Gasp today to help our efforts in putting a stop to air pollution and cleaning up the air we treasure!

Gasp Hires Michael Hansen as Executive Director

Gasp Hires Michael Hansen as Executive Director

Birmingham, Ala. — Gasp today announced that it has hired Michael Hansen to assume to role of executive director effective immediately. The Memphis, Tenn., native joined Gasp in 2013 as communications director. In that role, he managed marketing strategy, branding, press relations, social media, digital media, and other communications duties. As executive director, he is tasked with implementing strategy, fund raising, and day-to-day management.

Before joining the staff of Gasp, Hansen co-founded a freelance-style digital marketing company with his siblings called Mud Pie Creative Lab in 2012. He was previously public relations director at The Modern Brand, a full-service marketing and advertising agency located in downtown Birmingham. There he led public relations for the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership’s Champions for Health campaign, a $13.3 million public health campaign funded by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That effort included the highly successful SmokeFree Alabama campaign, which led to the implementation of smoke-free ordinances in several Jefferson County cities, including Birmingham.

Prior to The Modern Brand, Hansen was the public relations and marketing coordinator for Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, the nonprofit arm of Alabama’s largest living museum. He created the organization’s social media presence, making it one of the most followed cultural institutions in the South. He was also an integral part of the organization’s fundraising outreach. He also helped to create the Gardens’ junior board in order to groom its next generation of leaders.

Hansen has a bachelor of business administration from the University of Memphis in marketing management and a master of arts from the University of Alabama in public relations. He’s an active member of the Birmingham community and has served on numerous boards and committees for organizations and issues supporting causes ranging from civil rights to mental health to food access.

Michael can be reached at michael@gaspgroup.org or 205-746-4666.

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