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  • Inverting the Invasive

    In environmentalist circles here in South Florida, there's a lot of talk about the danger of invasive species, from our pesky iguana population to the Australian Pine Needle. Of course, the main threat is that these species will push out native ones: in the case of the pine, their needles litter forest floors, cuting off the chance of native growth below. The Burmese Python is one of Florida's most destructive predators, eating a staggering variety of native wildlife in the Everglades-- so much so that Florida Fish and Wildlife trains and pays people to hunt them. Despite the real harm done to our natural ecosystem by these flora and fauna, I can't help but think that our surroundings are constantly evolving. That's why I'm most interested in transforming, rather than eradicating, our relationship to these species and looking past the stigma to really adapt to our current situation. Iguanas, lionfish, and wild boar rampant? How about looking to them for their meat, as suggested by an Edible South Florida article a couple of years back? Australian pine is a great alternative to Christmas trees trucked here from Oregon and Washington, and they encourage their harvest at Arch Creek Park East. One of my favorite invasive species to take advantage of is the Brazilian Pepper Tree. Brought here by a botanist years ago as an ornamental bush with lovely red berries (reminiscent of Holly), it soon spread wild throughout Central and South Florida, not only taking up space where native trees once were but also affecting our native bird population. Their red berries pop up a couple of months before the holidays, and as soon as I see them, I harvest immediately. My motivation is two-fold: less of the berries in the wild means less that are spread by birds or wind. They are also a tasty alternative to pink peppercorn. Sweet with a curious, pepper-like finish, they are a nice addition to fish, chicken, even salad dressings. Fair warning, though: while some tout Brazilian pepper's medicinal qualities, they are also considered mildly toxic particularly to those with poison ivy and mango allergies. When life gives you iguanas, make a coconut stew doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but that's the idea!

  • The Mulberry Tree

    Even though I grew up between New York and New Jersey, I don't have nearly as much knowledge about the flora as I do in Miami. Here, the flowers and fruit are in your face at all times. I've learn about native plants from customers at Mima, about pollinators from gardeners Mary Benton and Lina Castaneda, I've learned to forage fruit with Raul, about medicinal "weeds" like Spanish Needle from Gabi Serra. Even though I'd spent time in nature as a child, it'd often been on a set path, at a distance from the brush that might be poison ivy, and further from the ticks. This summer, though, my perspective shifted. The Sunday morning of our trip to Shelter Island, we'd gone by the farmer's market to peruse the local faire and pick up a special treat for our hosts, Aunt Ellen and Uncle Ralph. Vendors included a distillery that used lavender in their gin, a café with nice pastries and breakfast burritos, awesome mushroom growers (that ended up being the treat), a few local farms, and artisans that sold stuff like crocheted handbags. But our almost-two-year-old Carmelo spotted something better-- a humongous mulberry tree, full of fresh berries. Overflowing, really. Raul hoisted him up and he gorged on them, every few stopping to feed Raul before eating yet another. They were so sweet and juicy. We weren't the first to enjoy them (the ground showed that rabbit and deer had been there not long ago!) but our grazing encouraged more marketgoers to notice the fruit and try it, too. What a gift! The funniest part was, as we were leaving, we noticed that the vendor just below the big tree, their fabric tent actually hitting the fruit laden branches, was selling pints of mulberries. A couple of days later, on my parent's couch in Jersey, I scrolled up to a friend Carla's video about berry foraging. I learned that berries grow on the edge of the forest and a field, or clearing. For over twenty years, my family had gone out with our dogs for walks at Thompson Park, and for the first time I saw the berries. Dodging the poison ivy, I left the trail and approached the bushes, using my mom's hat to fill with dewberries that I later found out were unripe (thus the tartness-- still enjoyable) and a few, carefully picked between the thorns, tiny raspberries. I made a jam and was just delighted. Back at Casa Cuatro Cocos, I feel like I'm only at the brink of seeing the fruit all around us. I've had capuli off the bush of our hedge, like a cotton candy aguanymanto. Coconut plums and Surinam cherry are now gone, but sea grapes are soon to ripen. There's always Poor Man's Pepper and Spanish needle down in the grass, always coconuts up towards the sky, always some kind of fragrant herb. I want to dive in to the perennial abundance innate to our natural environment, and immerse myself in it for our own pleasure, but also in order to protect it.

  • Mango Season

    This was written at the beginning of mango season, when the juiciness first hits, and included as a flyer in the Ode to Mango Box. With the backyard's harvest and help from our neighbors, this was our humble offering: 5-23-23 Mango season is a time of transition in Miami culture. Warm days with a breeze are changed for high humidity, intense sunshine, thunderstorms and, oh yes, mango. You can get mango from your neighbors and friends and strolls down the street, or baked into your local cafe’s seasonal pastry. There is an abundance of sweet stickiness, and it feels like a gift as the city shifts into its summer version of hibernation. Unless you’re allergic (not so uncommon, I’ve learned in my days as a shopkeeper), the mango is one of those fruits that everyone loves. How do you even describe the romance of its flavor and fragrance? There are many ways to savor mango, but nothing compares to slicing open a ripe one at room temperature and eating it straight up, its juice streaming down your chin. The mango in this box is from one of the two trees in our Miami backyard. One sits just beyond our back porch and— I admit, I don’t know what the name of this particular mango is but— uhnnmmm it’s perfect. Slices like butter, sweet and smooth, and grows big. With this mango we made mango jam and mango chutney. The mango roll up is from the second tree, which bears fruit earlier with a deeper orange flesh, lots of fiber, and even sweeter juice. The mango leaf is from both trees, and is nice used as an infusion (and has lots of medicinal properties I’m prohibited from sharing with you:) look it up! Mango Jam with Vivianne I invited plant-based baker and chef Vivianne of Love Bites to the house to make mango jam, since she’d made an amazing one for our Mother’s Day brunch. This time we flavored it with lemongrass, which is just a whisper in this chunky and yummy jam. Mango Roll Ups with Rosalia Rosalia is my sister who lives next door, and recently she whipped up mango fruit roll ups as an extra treat for that brunch I just mentioned. Truth be told, they never made it to the spread! But I did bring them to my son’s class the next day and it was a hit. It’s 100% mango. Mango Chutney with Jill Jill dropped off a mango chutney one day for me to try and I was so obsessed that, after giving a courtesy bite to Raul and my mom, I ate it with a spoon in one sitting. The depth of cardamom pairs so perfectly with mango, and this one we made at the shop second to last day.

  • Grabbing the Groceries

    My early childhood memories are filled with visiting small mom and pop shops in Astoria and Sunnyside Gardens, filled with peculiar smells of spices, colossal vats of olives and, of course, baklava. The owners of the corner spot called me Sasha and as a small girl in a city as big and boisterous as New York City, it felt cozy to be known by name. When my parents moved to suburban New Jersey, they still would stop in little specialty stores for Italian rice balls or bagels, but the anonymity of the big supermarkets won out on convenience and selection. Convenience is number 1 when it comes to regular purchases. Even if you are interested in supporting small retailers and connecting with the people who produce your food, it is often made to be a privilege of those who "have the time". Not to mention the money: it's no surprise that products made, often by hand, in an American city cost much more than those made out in the countryside or mass produced in factories here or abroad. But it feels like it is our natural birthright to be connected with the food that is grown and made in our immediate surroundings. When the pandemic emptied big box stores, our CSA members were happy they could count on weekly, vibrant vegetables grown without harmful chemicals and in soil that's been lovingly built. And, as shopkeepers, we were happy to have a community that kept us connected when everyone was over 6 feet apart. My curiosity has been sparked by this conundrum. If we were to truly eat locally in Miami, we'd be forgoing American staples like wheat and oats, apples and maple syrup. Dairy and corn productions would be miniature, not large scale. We'd have to look towards other flours and starches, like sweet potato and yuca. Milk from coconuts. Sweetness of honey. This is the opposite of convenient, but in fact, it seems to be one way I'm called to reconnect us with the earth that birthed us.

  • The Watering Down of Local

    You guys... this one may come off like a bit of a rant. Let's roll with it. The concept that birthed Mima Market actually began as Amo Esta Isla, a nonprofit Raul and I dreamed up while living in California and high off a recent trip to Vietnam. You know, we all know, life in Cuba isn't easy-- no es facil. Raul grew up during the Special Period, after the Soviet Union crashed, when all the economic support to the island was cut short and stores were empty. Thankfully, his resourceful and clever mom moved them from an attic apartment in La Habana Vieja to a small plot of land on the outskirts of the city where they could supplement their miserly rations with fresh fruit from their trees, crops from the fertile earth, and eggs from their chickens. Raul joined me in the States in 2013, and we had visited his family in Cuba as often as we could, each time seeing dramatic changes: a huge influx of tourism when Obama opened up the island around 2015, a diminishing flow of capital when the embassy closed around 2019, and the rising of inflation post-pandemic that has caused a bottle of olive oil to cost basically a month's salary. Most Cubans believe they have to look outside of the island for a solution: remittances from family in Miami, cheap clothes to resell from countries like Guyana... they even sell canned guava from BRAZIL in the state owned supermarkets (why?), and of course emigrating elsewhere. In 2017, Raul and I were so inspired by the local food movement in California's Bay Area and that trip to Vietnam opened our eyes to the abundance of food and art that was possible in a humble, post-Communist Country. We weren't thinking about the mammoth of government's role, but rather in empowering individual ingenuity, and from my parents' quiet home in Jersey and under the influence of that summer's visible eclipse, we started making our own artwork and crafting up a plan. Amo Esta Isla would be an interchange, in which people from outside of the island would come teach skills and crafts such as making ice cream out of coconut milk (very appealing in a country where cow's milk is basically illegal) and people on the island could teach traditional artisan crafts and folk herbalism in danger of extinction. To learn to live off of the island. The idea was ambitious, grand, and many of Raul's friends told him he was thinking impossibly, but we were steadfast-- that is, until the American embassy in Cuba was closed and all hopes of interchange were dashed. The concept stuck with us and one day when Raul fatefully clicked on a posting for a retail space in Miami Shores, we pivoted towards creating Mima Market, a place that would cultivate creatives to make in Miami. The milieu of Miami is very different than Havana, as you know, dear reader. Though you may be tricked by the lush tropical leaves and strong cafecito, Florida's Latin American capital is starkly different when it comes to how resources are used. This is a young city, founded by a woman in 1896, Julia Tuttle, who then convinced Flagler to extend railroads down here. The Tequesta and Seminole traditions had been largely pushed aside, as were those from Caribbean residents during Jim Crow. The Cubans came mid-century with the sugar industry, but without that red clay. Miami's land is sandy, it is known for its escapist tourism, a culture of superficiality, and a pervasive use of Spanglish. And although Miamians know Miami's reputation has nothing to do with them, there is a disconnect from the earth here as well, in a culture of import-export. Of course there is another side to Miami, one which Mima allowed us to unwrap. Organic farmers working their darndest to feed people at all socioeconomic levels, many moms who've taken their children's nutrition out of the overprocessed boxes and into their own hands, insistent artists lathing traditional artisan mediums into new forms for the 21st century. We had the honor of getting to know and work with Miami's small business owners, as well as a diverse cross-section of customers throughout South Florida, and to do so with the common goal of increased creativity and wellness for us all. It's altruistic, and the shop felt like the perfect way to showcase that vision, until it could no longer sustain itself. When it comes down to it, the majority of our small vendors were juggling increased price of materials, crazy competition from giants like Bezos, and less sales from well-meaning clients who were also dealing with a blown up cost of living. In a country where commodifying and convenience are #1, it's easy to see how we were on an uphill battle. You see the word "local" littered throughout corporate advertising: Your Local Geico Dealer on billboards, Your Local Coca-Cola Bottler on red trucks, "local" Miami brands, yes, but made in places like Colombia where the cost of labor is much cheaper. The vendors who do pride themselves on sourcing ingredients and materials from local farms, in lieu of for much cost on Amazon, are being priced out. So we find ourselves at the drawing board again, and there's nowhere to go but back down to Earth. Looking around, I see so many plants and people who yearn to grow. In a culture that thrives off of our individual feelings of lack, how can we feel full and support one another? No man is an island, they say, but we sure do have more than our share of coconuts.

  • Rebirthing Mima

    2020 changed the world for many reasons, but mine was turned around as a new life began growing within me. The process of pregnancy, so ordinary yet surreal, asked me to stop and appreciate the life we had created in Miami: one anchored in community and creativity. It also led me to question what "supporting local" really means. Raul and I had already been running Mima for two and a half years by November when we found out about the baby. Our inventory of food, drink, and artisan goods made in + around Miami was growing despite the global crisis-- in fact, many new producers popped up in that strange time. We had paused our menu and workshop programs, central to the first two years as a community space, but we were proud to have offered organic produce all year. By the spring of 2021, we brought back tastings, multi-vendor pop ups, and started a Saturday morning market with farmers Diana and Sam and their bounty. Then came summer, mangos dripping in fruit, heat and rain at their max, and Carmelo was born. We moved from our bayside apartment to a duplex with my sister and her family, a place to plant our own seeds, to dream up all we could grow and make. We called it Casa Cuatro Cocos after the coconut palms and happily made a banana circle for compost and a small vegetable garden. Carmelo brought a stillness with him, an invitation for me to pause and be present over those tender, early months. While Raul held down the shop, I contemplated the environment we were creating for our son, not just the house and the garden, but the culture of we were fomenting with Mima, one that shares the pleasure of consuming things people make with passion and with care for our wellbeing. But by that November, the farmers we'd worked with had taken a deserved pause. And our efforts at sourcing elsewhere didn't flow (I was mostly concerned with my own milk flow, to be honest). Owning a business trains you to ride the waves each challenge brings, but this one felt especially awkward-- how can you go back to a partial offering when we used to have it all? It was the start of the harvest and we didn't serve the fresh and organic, locally-grown produce that had become a cornerstone of Mima Market, and a vital part of our own lives that we wanted to share with Carmelo. We continued to go to The Farm to pick up eggs, and one February day the owner told us he missed having farmers on his land. He signaled nostalgically over empty plots while I turned to look at Raul. Raul had loved growing fruit and vegetables in his own yard as a kid in Cuba. Something clicked. This is how we can reconnect with the land and its natural rhythms. That was just over one year ago. That's enough for now. This is a blog, not a novel, after all. xo A

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