Tracking down the spices and specialty crops getting stuck at the border

Issue 203: The double whammy of COVID and post office disruptions comes for the food system once again. Plus, a shortage of patio heaters is gonna hurt restaurants this winter.

Hello! Welcome to Nosh Box, a food newsletter. On Mondays, I send a reading guide of food system ideas, and on Thursdays, I dig deeper with an original essay or conversation you can only find here.

Check out last Thursday’s dispatch — Sohla El-Waylly's new cooking show succeeds because she's in creative control

>>“All Your Favorite Foods Are Stuck in Transit

At Heated Magazine, Naomi Tomky explains how the double whammy of COVID-19 and post office service disruptions have significantly slowed down the import of specialty food items from overseas. Just logistical nightmare after nightmare:

Ocean freight companies refused to handle any food, even shelf-stable food like spices because they couldn’t make any promises about how long it would take to get to the U.S. Eventually, a worker from the spice co-op escorted two tons of spices by ferry to the Tanzania mainland, including spending a night in the ferry terminal warehouse. In the morning, he dropped it off at the airport — then it disappeared. Instead of getting loaded onto a Turkish Airlines flight, it sat in a cargo area of the Dar Es Salaam airport for a month until Frisch could find it — and even then, only 86 of the 91-piece shipment landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. (Some had gotten separated on a layover and were shipped back to Tanzania.)

And this is affecting small businesses most of all, she argues.

But now they have the product in the U.S. and struggle to compete with shipping rates secured by big companies like Amazon or sweetheart deals available only to private-equity-backed companies. While pre-pandemic, the USPS helped even that out, “It’s in total disarray right now,” he said. “We were shipping something to Northern California, and it ended up in Hawaii.”

>>“Digital menus have long faced resistance from U.S. customers. Covid-19 is upending that.”

>>“Restaurants are struggling to find—and afford—patio heaters

With restaurants across the country turning to outdoor dining to stay afloat during COVID-19, the coming winter was already looking rough. But, like everything else, patio heaters have been in short supply, which is a serious problem for restaurants in places like Chicago or Minneapolis. And that’s if local regulations even allow them in the first place — which, notably, New York does not. Yikes.

>>“Gandhi Mahal got famous for standing with protesters, but former workers say it’s toxic for women

In today’s edition of Keep Questioning Everything, a pair of reporters at City Pages talked to former employees of Gandhi Mahal, the restaurant in Minneapolis that burnt down a few months ago. The owner earned plaudits from food folks (myself included) for pointing out that “We can rebuild a building, but we cannot rebuild a human” and proclaiming, “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.” But, several former employees allege the restaurant was a toxic environment for women — an issue that stung even more due to the restaurant’s outwardly progressive values.

>>The cookbooks that give us what we need this year

The NYTimes lists their top 14 cookbooks of the year; Diana Henry picked her favorites for the Telegraph. But as Devra Ferst writes at Heated, “we need more from our cookbooks in 2020.” Her top 16 are here. I’m particularly excited for the list’s opener, “In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean,” by Somali chef Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen. Ferst explains:

The story of the region is told through the lens of bibis, or grandmothers, many of whom live in the country of their birth, and others who have migrated to places like Minnesota or Massachusetts. Each grandmother tells her story through a Q&A. Her words and recipes are contextualized with history that speaks to war, loss, migration, and the dishes that sustain us through those moments.

>>“Fireball Holiday Nog is the “sure, why not?” treat of the season

At The Takeout, Marnie Shure describes the non-alcoholic drink as such:

Let’s get this out of the way: it’s “Holiday Nog” because it doesn’t actually have any egg in it. (Classic egg nog recipes will include egg whites or yolks, or both, and many leading grocery store egg nog products like Dean’s, Prairie Farms, and Trader Joe’s Egg Nog similarly contain egg yolk solids.) Its ingredients list does, however, contain an impressive amount of synonyms for sugar: liquid sugar (sugar, water); invert cane sugar; and sugar. All of those ingredients are on prominent display in every sip.