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Posted on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 : noon

Taste education goes 'Beyond Buzzwords' with Tammy Coxen

By Kim Bayer


Tammy Coxen preparing a raspberry souffle for her TT Supperclub, raising funds for Food Gatherers.

Kim Bayer | Contributor

In countries where they take food seriously (perhaps Italy or France,) it's my understanding that part of what you do at meals is sit around and argue whether Nonna's or Isabella's arancini are crispier, whether the fava beans last year were plumper than this year, whether Patte de Loup (Wolf's Paw) is the only apple fit to make tarte tatin, or whether Reinette d'Armorique will do.

So when you're sitting there at four years old and talking about what you're eating, you're also learning from an early age about what's good, what's in season, what varieties grow in your part of the world. I don't remember that happening in my house over bologna sandwiches or tuna-noodle casserole when I was a young sprout.

After watching Jamie Oliver stump a bunch of second graders by showing them generic carrots and potatoes and asking them what they were called, it was clear that kids don't know what a potato is if it's not a french fry.

Reflections on the edible don't get easier as an adult. There are all these now-meaningless marketing words like: fresh, natural, organic, free-range, cage-free, farm-raised, traditional and local. What do they really mean anyhow?

As for taste, is organic any better than non-organic? What makes a Cherokee Purple tomato different from an Early Girl? Is raw unfiltered honey from The Local Honey Project any different from the honey in plastic bears that originates in China? Which eggs should you buy? Is it worth more than $8 per pound for "pastured, humanely raised" meat?

Well, if you've been stumped about any of these, Tammy Coxen may be the answer to your prayers. One of Ann Arbor's leading foodistas, a talented mixologist, chocolatier and chef for her TT (Tammy's Tastings) Supperclub, Coxen proposes to shed light on these and other food questions by giving you the chance to see, taste, and experience for yourself in her upcoming workshop "Beyond Buzzwords - Exploring our Food Values."

As a card-carrying member of the food-obsessed, I'm beyond interested in this concept. I would love to be able to talk to other people daily about these things that occupy me. (Full disclosure: Coxen notified me about this workshop and invited me to attend for free, but now that I've written about it publicly I'm going to have to pay). I asked Coxen a bit about what she's planning for Beyond Buzzwords:

What is the broad overview of what you'll cover?

TC: The workshop is organized around a number of side-by-side tastings. We'll taste examples of organic vs. convention produce, local vs imported, grass-fed vs corn-fed beef (or local free range eggs vs. supermarket eggs for the non-meat eaters), and fair-trade versus other varieties of chocolate.

As we taste those, we'll talk about the issues that are inherent in each of those choices, like price, health, and ethics. In between, there are some exercises that ask people to think about and share their own food histories, and their own reasoning about how and why they make food decisions. This is a very interactive experience — it's not at all about me telling people the answers — it's very much about helping us learn from one another, and get information that allows us to make the best decision for ourselves.

Who should attend?

TC: Everyone? Seriously, anyone who's curious and interested in food and where it comes from. Especially anyone who's wanted to know why on earth someone would pay $6 for a dozen eggs, or who's ever stood in the grocery store trying wondering if they should buy from the organic section or the regular section,

How many people are you hoping to get?

TC: I can accommodate up to around 40 people and would love to have a full house! But the great thing about this is it can work for every size group — it just changes the nature of the conversation.

What do you hope people get out of the experience?

TC: First off, I hope people have fun! That's my first goal. And I hope they learn some information along the way that will help them feel like they can be a more informed consumer. To that end, I'll be passing out some materials for people so that they have some tangible
tools to use in the grocery store or at the market.

I'm already shopping at the farmers' market is there still something I could learn from this class?

TC: Definitely. Even if you think you know all the ins and outs of organic, free-range, etc., I've found that everyone who participates in the workshop has some experience, or piece of information, that I wasn't aware of, or wasn't taking into account. The opportunity to learn about and understand the many diverse ways that members of our community think about food — this really important part of all of our lives — is to me the most interesting and important part.

What's one thing that might surprise me about attending this class?

TC: We do all of our tastings "blind" — which means you don't know if what you're tasting is organic/conventional/fair-trade etc until after. I think everyone might find some surprises along the way about what they think tastes better, or what was more expensive.

If you're interested, Beyond Buzzwords is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21 at Great Oak Cohousing. Tickets are available to purchase at:

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.