We love growing things to eat, and there are lots of great growers here in Phoenix. But you might not know Monika Woolsey. She's a dietitian and head of Hip Veggies, an educational collaboration between artists and food professionals that aims to promote locally grown produce, support local artists, and raise awareness of and support local hunger-relief organizations. She's a forager, gardener, and fearless leader.
Hip Veggies is probably best known for partnering with local artists to create awesome bags, perfect for transporting your produce. We were lucky enough to interview Woolsey, and she divulged the lineup of bag artists in 2014.
You've been at the reins of Hip Veggies for about a year now. Any takeaways from the first year?
Two big ones. One: Keep it simple, keep it visual. The Food Network has intimidated a lot of people out of cooking. The best food is often simple, but that doesn't make exciting TV. We stay basic, like suggesting trying a switch of chard into a favorite kale recipe. Or reminding fans that you can make pesto or hummus out of practically anything.
Two: With our Latino audience, we have seen successes bringing back foods known from visits to Grandma but rarely made at home. I am learning that sometimes foods like nopales and verdolagas (purslane) are associated with tough times and thus avoided. We focus on the family stories, and on modernizing those foods for a positive reframe. Nopales are on the menu at Bragg's Factory Diner and you will find verdolagas at True Foods. When foods cross cultures like that, they are on their way to being mainstream . . . which is important because those foods are powerful agents against diseases like diabetes, prevalent in Latinos.
Engaging artists as nutrition spokespeople was a great call. They all love food and market it way better than nutrition professionals often do!
There must be funny stories to share?
Recently, I was talking about native food with someone, whose face lit up and they said, "Oh, I've eaten Napolitanos!" I looked at them for clarification and they said, "You know, Napolitanos, the cactus pads!" (They meant nopales.) I was most excited to know they had tried them but now any mention of our former governor conjures up such a funny visual!
Also, last year, artists Rafael Navarro and Susan Lundgren came to Cesar E. Chavez Community School with me. Rafael had designed a fun exercise with apples that we turned into sugar skulls for Día de Los Muertos. We let a class of second-graders decorate them with a variety of fruits and vegetables. One of the students called me over to check out her Muerto, which had a large leaf of purple cabbage, draped over one side.
"Do you know what that is?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"That's the cell phone."
I had to ask. "So, who is your muerto talking to?"
Big sigh and "adults are so stupid" eye roll. "Dead people!"
Any surprises so far?
I have been so surprised at how many people have stepped up to help make this work. Recently we had a media blitz for the Haboob Buster.
Beckett graciously donated four of his sweet tea lemon meringue pies, but the logistical issue was getting four pies to survive trips across town on a 110-degree weather. It took three drivers. And every single Haboob Buster (five of them) came to the shoot, meaning we had eight people (and a baby!) team up to make that day happen. Hip Veggies exists because of the warm hearted community that hosts it. I am extremely grateful to everyone who has helped!
What are your plans for the future of Hip Veggies?
We are starting to experiment with ways to partner with chefs, bartenders, etc. We have had nice results so far and I hope to do more of that. One thing I have learned is the more opportunities people have to try these foods the more they realize they like them. If we can get some of these foods to be better accepted that opens up creative options for chefs.
This year I have targeted the West Valley, Maryvale, and South Phoenix as new places to bring our energy. Last year I lectured at Estrella Mountain Community College and not one student in two classes had ever tried kale. It grows right in their backyard! That needs to change. As I am known to say, "We've got a bag for that!"
You forage and share amazing photos from your neighborhood (Arcadia) on instagram- what does a day of "foraging" look like?
It depends on the time of year. In the spring I made some dandelion pesto! Early summer I was busy harvesting mesquite beans, which are currently drying on my patio. There was a mulberry tree I loved to grab a snack from each morning as well. A month ago a neighbor invited me to take advantage of his fig and apple trees, and I was making fruit butters. Right now I have a vegetable bin full of tunas (prickly pear fruit), and am up to my ears in verdolagas (purslane). Pomegranates are ripening, then pyracantha berries, and then it is full on citrus season.
And, I just learned about two new ones! Just confirmed that those bright pink fruits on the night blooming cactus are edible and I'm anxious to try one soon. And fan palm berries are also edible.
What's in your small patio garden?
Mostly basil and purslane. I have an orange tree as well, I love eating those freshly picked. My friends know I have adventurous tastes so they often bring me overflow from their gardens. When they do, I try to blog about it under the title, "What I did with your food," figuring burnout can keep people from gardening.
Any new bag artists on the horizon?
We just scheduled our twelve 2014 artist team! Two photographers, two native foods, and a great mix of gender, culture, style, and message! I am super excited!
The artists are: Anna Flaaten Wayne Rainey Veronica Verdugo-Lomeli Jesse Perry Claudia Saavedra Frank Ybarra Melanie Sainz Luis Salazar Lalo Cota Renetto-Mario Etsitty Lucretia Torva Monica-Gisel Crespo
Hip Veggies supports local hunger relief organizations. How does that work?
I thought we'd be working primarily with food banks but I quickly learned that many people never even make it there. I keep finding situations where someone found a hungry situation and just decided to do something about it. We try to help those kind souls create solutions that build self-sufficiency.
Our Chavez kids are a great example. Initially we thought the target was going to be a school garden but a few months into it the kids decided they wanted their own neighborhood bodega. We are looking into it!
Right now we are working on figuring out how to get fresh fruit and vegetables to the low-income seniors at the Westward Ho. It always bothered me that they live across from a market that financially may not be feasible to patronize. We have a great team working to figure out logistics for that.
Any events coming up we should know about?
Gennaro Garcia, our September artist, is depicting poblano chiles. We will have an event to announce soon.
Carlos Rivas (mushrooms) and Rocco Menaguale (pecans) finish out 2013, we will have details soon about their release parties.
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Our second annual Nopalpalooza is coming up November 9 at The Hive featuring our Wall of Nopal mural (30 artists!)...we kick off festivities September 14 with an urban bicycle prickly pear foraging trip ending with a beer and winemaking lecture at Old World Brewery.
Can you tell us about the current Haboob Busters and where to get them?
We have five currently: Prickly Palmer at Urban Beans (mint prickly pear Arnold Palmer), Robert Palmer (a "simply irresistible" cascara mint lemonade Arnold Palmer at Mud Dauber Coffee, Strawberry Mint Lemonade at Greater than Coffee, Arnold Palmer Salad at Bragg Factory Diner, and Sweet Tea Lemonade Meringue Pie at Beckett's Table. There will be a cocktail at Posh during Restaurant Week. These items benefit The Joy Bus and we welcome any chefs, baristas, bartenders who have a recipe with tea and lemon to participate.