Lola Milholland: The Case FOR Playing with Your Food
On this episode…
From “experimental ice cream socials” to “noodle luges,” Lola Milholland is turning the American bad habit of rushing through meals on its head with creativity, ingenuity and, of course, the spoils from her CSA box. She’s a creative food event planner, an award-winning writer, multimedia producer and founder of the Portland-based organic ramen noodle company Umi Organic, and we’re excited to hear from her on the importance of being playful with food.
Tune in to hear about…
– Exactly how Lola and Rootstock Radio host Theresa Marquez know each other. Let’s just say they go waaaaaaay back…
– Food adventures like ‘melon milk ice cream’ and ‘blind tasting bingo’
– How to get millennials to cook!
– What the heck a ‘noodle luge’ is and what inspired this crazy-awesome idea
– Deepening local cuisine even as more extraordinary ingredients show up on grocery store shelves
Listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Lola Milholland. She’s the founder of a business called Umi Organic. She’s a creative food event planner and an award-winning writer and multimedia producer. Welcome, Lola!
LOLA MILHOLLAND: Hello!
TM: I’m so happy to have you here, Lola, and be talking with you. And I guess I should tell our listeners that you actually are my daughter.
TM: I think that’s only fair! But I’m so looking forward to talking with you because there are so many things that you’ve done that I don’t know whether I even have gone into just how much food fun you have. And tell me, what inspires you to do these things? Didn’t you just do something called the Ice Cream Social?
LM: It was our third time in, I don’t know, maybe seven years—very sporadic—doing an Experimental Ice Cream Social, where people who love to make ice cream tend to think of wild flavors, come together, and bring all their homemade ice cream. And then anyone who attends gets to be a judge. So it just is an opportunity for people who want to be really playful. I think ice cream’s a really good template for that, to come out and make super strange, sometimes delicious, sometimes disgusting, always inventive ice creams.
TM: So tell us about a few of them.
LM: Well, my friend Jordan Behr, who I love and is often part of my food events, he is typically making the wildest ice cream that’s there. So the first year, he made a tobacco-marshmallow ice cream—
LM: —that people had very sharp feelings for or against. I like the marshmallow as a concept—it’s almost like the smoke, like a, you know, a metaphor for the cloud of smoke. And then the next time he did a tom kha ice cream. So, you know, a tom kha typically would be a Thai coconut curry with chicken or maybe mushrooms, eggplant, but his was an ice cream flavor, and it had that makrut lime, the lime leaf, and galangal. It was delicious. And this time he made a pink peppercorn sharpie but it was ice cream.
TM: (Laughing) Oh no, that sounds terrible! But were they actually edible?
LM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the tobacco one was a little too much for me, but these last two—I mean, to my shock, the sharpie one tasted like sharpie and also was kind of delicious.
TM: Oh no… So what about the—didn’t you do granita? I was kind of taken with your melon ice cream.
LM: Yeah, yeah! So I had written an article when I was writing for Edible Portland about horchata (or orxata).
TM: Tell our listeners what an horchata is, just in case they don’t know.
LM: So I think that most people think of horchata as a rice-based, like a sweet rice-based drink that you would get when you were ordering tacos, maybe, at a Mexican restaurant, and tends to have cinnamon flavor to it—quite sweet but refreshing, served over ice. But I had been seeing different horchatas around town, and I was kind of interested in this really wonderful nonprofit in Portland called Hacienda CDC [Community Development Corporation], and they were helping Latino food entrepreneurs connect with the Portland food community, and eventually they actually built a public market. This was before that.
And so it turns out horchata is actually a much more diverse item than we typically see. It is made from any number of grains and seeds, and depending on where you are in Central America you would see really different types of horchatas. And the one that this woman, Amalia, made was made from cantaloupe seeds. So she actually would rinse cantaloupe seeds and blend them with almonds that she’d skinned and make a milk out of it. And it’s just this beautiful milk that tastes like faintly of melon, that aural flavor. You can’t quite tell what it is, but it’s creamy and white. So the fruit you have to just eat, but the seeds make a delicious milk.
And so one of my categories this year was nondairy, and I made a melon milk ice cream, where I made an horchata from the cantaloupe-seed milk. I added a simple syrup I’d made with cinnamon stick and lime juice, and then I blended that in my ice cream maker. And it was very delicious, if I don’t say so myself.
So the Experimental Ice Cream Social is super silly. Sometimes I feel like it’s good to, in a world that’s full of lots of heavy things, that while we’re working towards different goals, to remember to have silly kinds of fun.
TM: So Lola, I really would love for you to talk about one of my favorite events that I attended, and I know you did it quite a few times: Blind Tasting Bingo!
LM: Yeah, so the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, PICA, which is a really wonderful organization we have here, was hosting their annual festival—it’s called Time-Based Art, TBA—and they asked me if I would coordinate the food. And typically that just means making sure there’s an option on hand so that people can drink and party at the venue where these just amazing artists perform. And I kind of bargained with them and said, “Hey, if I’m going to coordinate the food, I’d also like to put on some of my own, stage some of my own, events.”
And at the time, I was working at Ecotrust, a nonprofit, and one of my colleagues and really dear friends, Jeanne Kubel, is just a really experienced, talented event planner. So I decided to rope her in, and she said, “I have this idea, Blind Tasting Bingo—I just don’t know what it is. It’s just like an idea that I have.” So she and I began to take those words and build an event concept around it.
And I recruited local chefs. And the way that it works is that we would have one chef make a series of small bites, and then we would make a bingo board. And you would taste these items blindfolded, and then you would have a chance to circle on the board what you thought you were tasting. And the first person to get a bingo would be the winner, but everyone would eat their way through the entire menu. So it was a chance for chefs to be really playful with their flavor combinations and composing really beautiful tastes, and serve an interesting experience for eaters, with their eyes closed, to try to kind of understand what they were tasting.
TM: So do you think that people who participated, did they learn about different food? Was it more than just tasting, it was kind of like educational?
LM: I think it was a lot of different things. I think it was really experiential with food in a context where people don’t usually think of food—contemporary art. So it allowed some chefs in Portland, who are talented artists in their own right, to be on that stage with other artists. I thought that was really neat. We also mostly focused on women chefs, which is sort of a theme for me. And then for the eaters, I do feel like we have a culture of rushing through our food in America, and I think like really lingering over what you’re tasting and sort of like letting your tongue do the thinking and finding pleasure in that is a really sweet pastime. So…
TM: Tell us about your potluck that everyone who brings a dish, it needs to be a—what do you call it?—a piece of art.
LM: Yeah, so this is an idea my friend Midori Hirose had. She’s an amazing artist here in Portland. And I think you’ll find that a lot of these events that I’ve been part of, I have people around me who are inspiring me, or themselves have ideas, and I often am a little bit of like the motor to make it go. I can figure out all the little cups and spoons, all that kind of stuff. Anyway, and so at some point she had this idea, and she recruited me and my brother Zach to be her cohosts. And she called it “Meatspace,” like meat like carne, carnal. And we put out the invites—you know, bring a food sculpture; it has to be 100 percent edible. And we’ve been hosting it in backyards. And they’re super silly. I mean, like they can get really conceptual, they can get really basic. The first year, two people brought log cabins made out of hot dogs. That was just surprising. (Laughing.)
TM: But at the same time, you can imagine a log cabin. I mean, did it really look like a log cabin?
LM: Yeah, I thought so. And you could stick them on the grill and then smoke would come out the chimney!
TM: (Laughing) That’s wonderful!
LM: I mean, yeah, that event, for super silly, you can’t do it too often because it’s a little much. But then, again, like, to my great surprise, people will come with just the wildest things. There are people in this community who have the imagination and the interest to build things. So people have something that they have in their mind, and they make it, and we all get to experience it. It’s pretty funny.
TM: You know, I love this topic of food fun and the idea of you can eat these things, but then you’re adding another dimension to it. I’d love for you to talk about your CSA that you have right now, because to me, that’s food fun too. And you know, when you go to a CSA and they have all these different varieties and you’ve never heard of them, that’s kind of food fun. So this one seems like so much fun because it’s so different.
LM: Yeah. I am madly in love with my CSA. The farm is called Mudjoy Farm. The farmer is named Harry. Portland has got a lot of wonderful CSA farms, and I would encourage anyone, wherever you are, to join a CSA. I think it’s a really important way to both grow your own cooking skill and connect with the seasons, what’s growing, and also support a local farmer and your local agricultural system. So I’m a big proponent, and it definitely has made me grow as a cook.
But Harry has been an especially amazing person to be connected to because he himself is a very curious cook. Just this last Saturday he had a tomato tasting with 55 different tomato varieties that he’s growing, including some of his own crosses. And he grows items that, you know, herbs and greens and gourds and things that I otherwise wouldn’t taste but that are delicious and beautiful. I think there’s like a depth of flavor in what these local farmers are growing that just can’t be matched.
And so for me, every week, I’m getting a number of items that are not necessarily available at my local supermarket. They might be at the farmers’ market; in some cases they’re not. And I’m challenged to experiment with them. And also I get delicious things like tomatoes and eggplants and onions and beets that I know exactly how to gobble up. But I really enjoy that mix of exploring new flavors in my own cooking.
TM: Well, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And today I’m here, believe it or not, with my daughter, Lola Milholland, who is actually a writer, a cook, and a founder of a little business that she started called Umi Organic. And we’re talking about having fun with food.
And Lola, I kind of wanted to mention the CSA because I thought it would be a good introduction to the idea of being a millennial. I’m always worried that millennials don’t know how to cook. What can we do to get these millennials out there cooking?
LM: That’s a tough nut to crack. I don’t have the answer. If I had the answer I would run around spending my life on that, but I don’t. I feel like we, those who like to cook, can spread that joy with other people by helping teach them, by sharing meals with them. I always like to encourage my friends who don’t cook a lot to learn how to make their very favorite thing to eat and make it better than anybody else can, because that’s the thing you’re most likely to cook. And then if you can get some confidence in the kitchen you might begin spreading your wings.
So I do feel like the CSA is a really good way to challenge yourself, but it does require that you cook a lot of meals at home. Is food events the way to reach people? I’m just not sure. I think flavor is the way. I think learning how to make delicious, flavorful food seems like the best way to kind of want to come at cooking.
TM: To just keep our theme of food fun and also to bring in Umi, the most delicious ramen noodles that you make, you kind of got inspired, didn’t you, in Japan to do a noodle luge? And so maybe you could talk about the kind of fun that you’ve had sending noodles down a luge and what it was like.
LM: Yeah. So this business, Umi Organic, is based in Portland and we do fresh organic ramen noodles. We use wheat and also a whole-grain local barley flour. And so ramen noodles are pretty familiar to a lot of people—they’ve bought really cheap packs before. But a fresh noodle is a little bit less familiar, and it has got just an amazing texture to it because it’s a fresh noodle. And I think because we’re using this whole-grain barley, it’s got a lot of flavor. So part of the thing that we need to do is give people a chance to taste it, and also imagine ways to use it beyond the ramen soup.
And in Japan, they do eat ramen in the summer; it’s a dish called hiyashi chuka. It’s like a really delicious miso-sesame cold noodle salad. But separately they have something called nagashi-somen. It means like flowing somen noodles, and it’s this waterslide that people build to shoot somen noodles down. Somen, for those who aren’t familiar, is a very thin wheat noodle, and it’s typically eaten cold. It can be eaten hot, but it would be something they would serve with ice cubes in the summer, like a really refreshing summer evening dinner. And they shoot it down cold-water slides, and then people catch them with their chopsticks. It’s a good way for kids, even in Japan, to learn how to master chopsticks. And somen are slippery! They’re small and slippery, so it’s really good practice. And you can go to restaurants and have it, you can do it at your own home, kids do it in school.
And so I had thought, oh, man, we should do that with our ramen noodles. And they’re going to be easier to catch because they’re bigger, which is good. And they’re great cold, which people don’t think about very often. We could set it up at the farmers’ market, where we have a booth, and really get people to interact with the noodles. And so the Portland farmers’ market was totally excited about it, and they offered to buy vegies from all the different vendors at the market and set up a station, and I said I’d make a bunch of sauce. And we split, my friend Anna split a ten-foot bamboo pole piece, quite large around, in half, and we built a 20-foot long waterslide from it and sent water down it. And for several hours at the farmers’ market we sent down our Umi ramen noodles, and kids and adults alike caught them. And don’t worry, Miss Nurse, we made sure it was sanitary! We were very careful. And then they could catch their noodles and take their bowl of noodles and top them in sauce and tons of vegies from the farmers’ market and eat noodles there. So that was something that we did as a way to get out the word but also involve kids and give people some new ideas about how to use ramen noodles.
TM: You know, I am so curious, too, about the “Asianization” of America. And I know that you’ve looked into it a lot, and certainly we know that there’s a lot of U.S. citizens in Japan, but there’s an awful lot of people who’ve been to Japan and come back here and love the food. Like you, how much you loved ramen, wanted to make a real Japanese ramen. Certainly they say the healthiest people in the world are in Japan. And I wondered if you might comment on that.
LM: Yeah, I mean, I think that there is still a lot of room for delicious food from across Asia to enter more into the U.S. market and its grocery stores. I feel like, as a fresh noodle in stores in Oregon and Washington, I see how few other fresh noodles are there, and that a lot of the items that I love to eat are in Asian markets but they’re not necessarily in other stores. I think that Americans have a pretty good sense of maybe our own kind of variation on Mexican food, and people feel pretty comfortable at home cooking it. And I think that’s beginning to happen with Thai food, Japanese food, maybe Korean food—maybe that’s more and more happening. I see kimchi as a much more popular item than it was even five years ago, and I think gochujang is going to kind of come into the market and become something people feel comfortable with. So I think we’re just going to see more of these really extraordinary ingredients come into our groceries and into our kitchens and become something we feel more comfortable cooking with.
And in many cases there is a deep tradition of how to make something, and I think we have the hippies to thank for bringing in a lot of macrobiotics foods, bringing a lot of healthy Japanese foods. But mostly Americans don’t really know what is good and what is not good, and I think that’s going to change. I think that our standards for what is delicious in those kinds of ingredients is going to increase and continue to rise. And so, just as a cook, I’m excited about that.
TM: Well, you know, the Asian food—and it might be the reason why some of the Asian people are so healthy—they eat meat, but don’t they eat it more as a condiment?
LM: I don’t know if I’d make that generalization. My personal experience living in Japan was that we ate meat often but not large amounts of it. But I do totally support what you’re saying, which is, yeah, meat as like a small, really flavorful item that expands a meal but isn’t the dominant portion of it.
TM: Don’t the Japanese also do just a lot of pickles and fermented food, pickled food?
LM: Yeah, definitely. And it really brings depth of flavor to their cuisine. And so we say the word umami for a reason. It’s a Japanese word, but they really have embraced that idea, and they can bring a lot of flavor out in things through fermentation. And a lot of these food items have been developed slowly over a really long time. So, like any cuisine, world cuisine, where people were in one place for a long time and they just like dug in deep and found all of the depth of flavor they could get out of things, that happened there.
TM: So Lola, before we leave the umami, just in case some of our listeners don’t know what umami is, maybe you could say just a couple words about it.
LM: Sure, yeah. People call it like the savory flavor. I associate it with glutamate; I think you’ve heard the word glutamate maybe used in chemistry. But there’s glutamate in all kinds of things—tomatoes, parmesan cheese, miso, soy sauce. It seems to me, and I’m not a food scientist, but it seems to me that it almost has like an effect of opening up other flavors, as though your taste buds were more receptive, as though, like it’s mouthwatering, those kinds of things. So it’s like giving your food…it’s just making it tastier, is really what I think of umami as being. It represents like more deliciousness. (Laughing.)
TM: More deliciousness! Mmm, that’s a good way—I’ve never heard that one for umami. And I guess one final question before we leave that topic: Do you think, or is there a perception anyway, that the Japanese really are healthier than we are?
LM: Yeah, well, they say the people in Okinawa are really healthy. And you know, I was talking to someone, a friend in Japan, who was saying that the one big problem they have is sodium—they eat a lot of salt in Japan, through soy sauce and miso and things like that. But otherwise their diet is very light, they eat really healthy fats, they seem to eat really well. And people live a long time there, so it’s true—that part is true.
TM: Yeah, I mean I think that people often use how long someone lives in an area as oh, they’re healthier. They live to be in their hundreds in Okinawa so they’re the healthiest people. Maybe that’s the wrong way to measure health.
LM: Well, I mean, I feel like we are all fetishizing different places. Like, oh, if we just eat like the Okinawans, or if we ate like the Mediterranean diet or something. But what I would like to see is for us to deepen our own cuisine where we are locally and take parts of all of those things. But I’d love the people here who are growing foods from all over and really seeing what grows well here and continuing to adapt it for this place. And I think taking lessons from those places, like yeah, less meat, good healthy fats, grains—they’re eating grains in Japan a lot; fermented foods. All that stuff is so good. A really diverse diet, really seasonal diet—I think the seasonality is something that I am super inspired by. But we grow such amazing food here in Oregon, but I sometimes wonder, like, what is our cuisine? And I don’t think we’ve had long enough to cook it, you know, and we’re still in that process. And I’d love to see us keep deepening it.
TM: So, well, I get from your statement really that you put a lot of value on local food and seasonal food. Maybe you could say a little bit about that. Is it healthier?
LM: Well, I think that it is important, if you’re able, to support people in your community doing good work, and some of those people are going to be farmers. And in Oregon we also have people who are seed producers. And these farmers and ranchers and grain growers, it takes a lot more work to grow things organically or to do crop rotations and use a lot of [unclear—protective? 26:56] equipment, to be really engaged with what you’re doing. If you’re not using pesticides, to actually have the labor force to be weeding. All that kind of stuff. And so it does make food cost more, but it also is an investment in this place and in the environment here and all the people living here. And I really believe in that.
But also, I think, going back to the beginning of this topic, it just enriches my life so much—my relationships with producers, the way that their efforts translate to my understanding about what I’m experiencing. And seeing what’s happened with the trial against Monsanto, it’s just a reminder that there are lots of people whose priorities are not the healthfulness of food or the deliciousness of it or the nutritional value. You know, they’re for-profit corporations. And there’s lots of things that we lose when we disengage, and our health is one of them, and the health of the environment is another. And so I think being more engaged, it’s one of the things in life that, it’s extra awesome because it’s not only a valuable thing to do for your community but it also is a pleasurable thing to do, and it can bring you a lot of joy. And there’s not tons of things like that.
TM: Lola, thank you for joining us today. As always, what a pleasure to be speaking with you. And keep up the fun! And eat delicious local food and support a really vibrant community. It’s really a pleasure.
LM: Thank you for having me.
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