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Returning to her birthplace, Chronicle food writer Olivia Wu finds a city racing toward the future, but one that thrives on preserving its culinary heritage

Olivia Wu, SF Chronicle
…Low food costs and low labor costs feed the culinary boom, which in turn feeds the booms in high-tech, business, clothing, design, engineering and architecture.

In China, numbers alone are cause to salivate: One billion, 300 million people, (according to the China Population Information Network). More than 103 million Internet users (2004, according to Internet World Stats), 302 million mobile phone users and more than 304.6 billion text messages sent last year, a 300-fold over the previous year (according to

Shanghai bursts to life when the lights go on. It seems like a mega-wattage Disney World, because the veneer feels thin and young. It’s a child who has been shuttered in infancy and suddenly is given mega-doses of vitamins (or steroids) at pre-adolescence.

That adolescent is now bolting in an unchecked growth spurt, but bolting into what is still unclear. My heart is with the peasants who sell breakfast at 5 a.m. and earn their $20 a day. Their Shanghai is disappearing quickly.

When my father returned to Shanghai in the early 1990s, he said little to me about it afterward, except to mumble about the first meeting in 25 years with his siblings and mother, and the deep guilt he felt about leaving them behind.

When I pushed him point-blank, in the excitable, naive-style of “Well, how was it?”, waiting for a one-word enthusiastic summation, he paused. “I didn’t hear a single bird,” he said quietly.One rarely sees birds, except caged ones, and in the market near my neighborhood, I hear a bird now and then and I wonder if it is a kept one or a free one. The highly stylized artificial rocks, waterfall and hedges in my apartment complex occasionally invite a wild finch or two, nothing like the teeming, freely splatting, well-fed pigeons of New York or San Francisco. There is, after all, no room for much else in this city that is home, really, only to the human species.

How 20 million of these humans interact with one another surprises me every day. They are driven by a survival instinct, work ethic and, as many foreign marketing specialists here attest, a will-do, anything-can-happen attitude — especially among those in their mid to late 20s who never brushed against the Cultural Revolution.

Traditionalism and futurism live side by side.

To explore the Bay Area’s close ties to Asia, The Chronicle has sent staff writer Olivia Wu to report from China for the next several months.

Wu, who has written the Seafood by the Season columns, Rent-a-Grandma stories and other features for the Food and Wine sections, will write about food and culture from her base in Shanghai. She speaks three dialects of Chinese, was born in Shanghai and raised in Bangkok.

Her reports will appear in the Food section and throughout the paper.
(26 April 2006)

What is the value of a tree?

Ethan Gilsdorf, Christian Science Monitor
Antoinette Campbell was justifiably shocked when city workers mistakenly chainsawed a 60-foot oak tree last May that shaded the eastern facade of her Washington, D.C., home.

“It was a personal something I had with that tree,” says Ms. Campbell.

Besides the emotional distress, the error had an unexpected consequence: She noticed her air conditioner began running a couple hours earlier each morning.

Conventional wisdom is that just one shady tree can save a homeowner $80 a year in energy costs, but Campbell claims her bills skyrocketed once the oak disappeared – up to $120 more some months.

Yes, humble street trees cool the air, reduce pollution, and absorb storm-water runoff, say forestry experts. But the benefits aren’t only ecological, they say. Property values are 7 percent to 25 percent higher for houses surrounded by trees. Consumers spend up to 13 percent more at shops near green landscapes. One study even suggests patients who can see trees out their windows are hospitalized, on average, 8 percent fewer days.
(26 April 2006)

No Bar Code (Joel Salatin)

Michael Pollan, Mother Jones
An evangelical Virginia farmer says a revolution against industrial agriculture is just down the road.
I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens.

I’d heard a lot about the quality of the meat raised on his “beyond organic” farm, and was eager to sample some. Salatin and his family raise a half-dozen different species (grass-fed beef, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits) in an intricate rotation that has made his 550 hilly acres of pasture and woods in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley one of the most productive and sustainable small farms in America. But when I telephoned Joel to ask him to send me a broiler, he said he couldn’t do that. I figured he meant he wasn’t set up for shipping, so I offered to have an overnight delivery service come pick it up.

“No, I don’t think you understand. I don’t believe it’s sustainable—‘organic,’ if you will—to FedEx meat all around the country,” Joel told me. “I’m afraid if you want to try one of our chickens, you’re going to have to drive down here to pick it up.”

This man was serious. He went on to explain that Polyface does not ship long distance, does not sell to supermarkets, and does not wholesale its food. All of the meat and eggs that Polyface produces is eaten within a few dozen miles or, at the most, half a day’s drive of the farm—within the farm’s “foodshed.”

This article is an excerpt from Michael Pollan’s new book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”
(May/June 2006 issue)

New “100-Mile Diet” website

Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon,
On the first day of spring 2005, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon made a commitment to live for a full year on food and drink drawn from within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, British Columbia. The 100-Mile Diet was born — and response to the local-eating experiment was overwhelming.

“We heard from people as far away as Norway, France and Australia,” said MacKinnon. “This is what it’s like to witness the birth of a movement.”

Today, Smith and MacKinnon launched, an online guide for anyone looking to dig into local eating. The site features a unique mapping tool to instantly find your own 100-mile ‘foodshed,’ tips for tracking down local markets and farms, unusual food facts, and the couple’s 11-part series on a year of local eating.

First published on, the 100-Mile Diet column attracted 40,000 readers and was linked, reprinted and blogged across the internet. The yearlong experiment has appeared in media from BBC Worldwide to Utne Magazine.

Smith and MacKinnon finished their one-year trial on March 20, 2006, but plan to continue to shop at farmers’ markets, tend their community garden plot, and preserve local foods for the winter. “We started the 100-Mile Diet because so many people feel disconnected from where their food comes from,” said Smith. “Now eating locally is a part of who we are, and we didn’t want to see it end.”

A book version of their adventure, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, will be published in New York and Toronto in spring 2007.
(26 April 2006)
Recommended by Chris Schults at Gristmill.

Jane Jacobs, urban activist, is dead at 89

Doublas Martin, NY Times
Jane Jacobs, the writer and thinker who brought penetrating eyes and ingenious insight to the sidewalk ballet of her own Greenwich Village street and came up with a book that challenged and changed the way people view cities, died today in Toronto, where she lived. She was 89.

She died at a Toronto hospital, said a distant cousin, Lucia Jacobs, who gave no specific cause of death.

In her book “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” written in 1961, Ms. Jacobs’s enormous achievement was to transcend her own withering critique of 20th-century urban planning and propose radically new principles for rebuilding cities. At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs’s prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.

Ms. Jacobs’s thesis was supported and enlarged by her deep, eclectic reading. But most compelling was her description of the everyday life she witnessed from her home above a candy store at 555 Hudson Street.
(25 April 2006)
Long, appreciative obituary.
Many related articles
Three Who Made a Revolution (Nation)

New Urbanism’s ten solutions

Andy Kunz, New Urbanism website
10 SOLUTIONS to the peak oil and global warming twin crises that are feasible, healthy, and sustainable:

1. An immediate and permanent moratorium on all new road construction and expansions.

2. An immediate and permanent moratorium on all new airport construction and expansions, as well as an end to all aviation subsidies.

3. The immediate construction of a nationwide new train network across America connecting every city, town, and neighborhood with an efficient, state-of-the-art electric train network comparable to what is currently operating all across Europe and Japan.

4. An immediate tripling of minimum vehicle miles per gallon standards for all vehicles produced in America – accomplished by a quick and complete conversion of all factories to the building of only hybrid, solar, and fully electric vehicles.

5. An immediate moratorium on the construction of any new coal fired or nuclear power generating plants.

6. The immediate construction of massive new solar and wind power generating capacity all across America, including small windmills that can be incorporated inconspicuously into the roofs of buildings.

7. The immediate installation of full roof solar panels on every building in America.

8. An immediate moratorium on the building of any additional sprawl.

9. A major focus of federal, state, and local governments on the densification and revitalization of all existing cities and towns across America, with pedestrians and bicycles given top priority over automobiles. Included would be millions of affordable housing units and high quality neighborhood schools located so all children can walk or bike to them.

10. The immediate installation of major organic farms at the edge of every city and town across America.
(April 2006)