Natalie Morris Professor Sustainable Food Systems program at Mesa Community College nataliermorris.com
To those in the local food community, particularly those with an interest in sustainable food, the name Natalie Morris should be a familiar one. The trained chef turned entrepreneur created Good Food Finder, an online directory that identifies and locates local food producers around the state.
Morris started that project in 2011 after receiving a fellowship grant from the University of Arizona's Borderlands Food and Water Security program at the Southwest Center. She spent years gathering information from all over the state and putting it in an easy-to-use online form, but in October of this year made the decision to turn the project over to Local First Arizona.
"I sort of had to admit to myself that I needed to send my kid off to college," Morris says of the decision.
It also gave her time to focus on her latest project: writing a book about the global history of beans.
The book, which won't be completed for some time, will be a part of the Edible series published by Reaktion Books. Other selections in the series cover topics from tequila to truffles and even sauces, herbs, and offal.
She's been working on the book for about six months now, and though she admits she wasn't initially so enthusiastic about the topic, Morris says it only took a few days for her to fall in love with the bean. In addition to researching different types of beans from all over the world, Morris will explore the role of beans in folklore, how to grow them, and even how she thinks they'll be relevant in the future.
One of the most striking things Morris says she's noticed so far is that despite beans' prevalence in our diets, the food remains quite humble.
"They're such a plebeian food," she says. "It's funny how subtle they are, yet so prominent."
Working on the book has meant moving away from her work in sustainable food, to some extent. (Though Morris still teaches core classes for the Sustainable Food System program at Mesa Community College.) But Morris says focusing on food history still works toward the same goal: bringing people together.
"Because who cares if we see climate change if we don't have each other?" she says.
What's the most interesting thing you've learned about beans so far? This comes with a little bit of convenient pride. Fenugreek, one of my absolute favorite spices, is in the bean family. I just love the flavor of fenugreek; I've never had anything with it that I didn't like. To know that it belongs in the same category as another one of my favorite things makes me so proud. And, it also has its own unique history, but that's something saved for the book!
Do you have a new favorite type of bean? Yeah, so far I have a favorite new one that I knew about but had never really used before. It's the lupini bean ... I soaked it for three weeks and it was still hard, but it has this reputation. I ended up turning it into just a snack because it was so - like [after] three weeks, still kind of hard, I put it in the crock pot for like three days...nothing. I researched and thought maybe it was just a bad batch or whatever and it's not. The bean is just like that. Italians are known for even putting it in their bath tub and running it constantly...I don't even know why I bothered. But I tried. So I ended up making a little crunchy snack.
What is your favorite way to cook beans? I've been experimenting with different ways and so far, one of the better dishes that I've made was the New Year dish, Hoppin' John. We made that over New Years just to, you know, add some good fortune on top of everything. That was really good and it's just a smoked ham hock with black eyed peas and collard greens. There are different superstitions around it, obviously. Certain people want to do collard greens, other people don't, but generally accepted you want to do collard greens. But either way, just to cover all the bases I did all of that and that was really good.
What besides beans are you obsessed with right now? I can't stop drinking sherry! I love it. I just want to try all the sherries. I'm all about the sherry right now.
What is it about sherry that you like? I don't know. I mean, sherry isn't a bitters, it doesn't fall under the bitters category, but I love bitters, particularly Italian bitters, the amaro - or, the amari, in this case. I love it, I don't know why. There's just something about that bitterness that I just like. I know people who hate them and I know people who just love them the way I do.
What's your go-to drink (when your not drinking sherry)? I love Montenegro.
What three food-related books could you not live without? I Know How to Cook by Ginette Mathiot . It's a French author. That is definitely my favorite cook book. And if you would allow me a series of books, my favorite series of books is all books by M.F.K. Fisher. She writes non-fiction, auto-biographies and I'm in love with her. She's my idol. I wish she could be my mentor. And, a third book that I think would be my go-to book would be Cuisine and Culture by Linda Civitello.
What is your go-to restaurant for lunches? My go-to place is probably going to be super comfort food and, like, a place where I can eat good food and hide and have a drink - cause I'll drink at lunch, I don't care. It has to be Pane Bianco, like, of all the Bianco restaurants. It's got that quality to it. It's that hideaway, good light, soul food, and a big glass of wine.
What's your favorite childhood food memory? I always use this example, but I always, always credit my grandmother with making me steamed broccoli and peanut sauce. Always. Because I know without a doubt that if I hadn't had that I wouldn't care about food. She gave it to me before I really could eat and I remember it so vividly. I always have the taste for it and you can buy it in a jar, but it's not the same. I swear, when I have kids they are so getting that.
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When did you become passionate about sustainable food? I can give you a memory. It was when I was in cooking school, which was near Maya's Farm and we would get these trucks in of Shamrock or whatever. I was like, "It's next door. Why are we doing this when we could go next door - like, we could walk next door - and get fresh food?" None of that added up for me. And I asked my chef, this was 2007, and he's this kind of Old Guard chef. He was just like, "Blah, blah, blah." Like, literally. I'm not exaggerating, he just shook me off and laughed or snorted or whatever. And I never really got an answer. That's when sort of, all the wheels started turning.
It sort of had this trickle down effect and even though Phoenix wasn't what it is now, that's where it all started. If I could, I would just give a little shout out to everyone else that wants to learn these things. Just look. Look around you. Ask questions. Figure it out. You, go figure it out.
Editor's Note: This post has been edited from its original version.