Corbett, Boehner, and I

Since the terms of our newly elected representatives have started, it has become a weekly tradition to hear of the new proposed spending cuts in areas all over the country. Among the organizations and foundations on the cutting block: Planned Parenthood, National Endownment for the Arts, National Endownment for the Sciences, NPR, the School District, ad nauseum. In this new political context, we are essentially being asked to “do more with less”, that mantra that buzzes in the ear of every non-profit administrator applying for funding. Al-Bustan, like most non-profits, is starting to feel the pressure mount, as funding for the arts is generally the first to be seen as “extraneous” to education.

The school-district of Philadelphia is cutting thousands of positions due to a $629 million budget deficit. In fact, the outlook was much worse until additional funds were “happened upon” to save full day kindergarten. As of last week City Council voted to increase the property tax by 4% to cover about $54 million of the $128 the District requested. Corbett’s education budget cuts do not affect communities equally across our geopolitical spectrum: not only is the School District of Philadelphia accounting for 25% of the spending cuts statewide, students in the district itself are experiencing a $1,406 reduction per student. In our wealthier suburbs, where higher property tax revenues subsidize better equipped schools, state funding reductions are in the order of around $80 per student. Furthermore, last month a new piece of federal legislation, euphimistically named “Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act” (HR 1891) was introduced, which proposes cutting 43 federal education programs. Among these is the Arts in Education program, which funds 57 educational projects around the country, and has supported over 210 grants serving students in high needs schools.
In 2008, Al-Bustan received a huge boon that would be paramount in facilitating its transition from a summer camp into a full blown arts and culture non-profit: Americorps State and National Program. Under the umbrella organization ACCESS and Network of Arab American Communities, who apply for the Americorps grant and distribute the positions among many Arab-American organizations across the country, we were afforded our first full-time position, in addition to our executive director. This position should not be considered “fluff” or “overhead.” This extra full time staff member eased our transition into public schools, created links with other organizations in the city, built relationships with public school administrations, helped our part-time teaching artists, and organized Arab culture demonstrations. This is not to mention how this staff member was also a valuable asset in the organization and implimentation of our flagship program: Al-Bustan Camp.
Late last week, we received a phone call from the Arab American Resource Corps, the official name of the Americorps program that NNAAC sponsors. Because of the drastic federal cuts ($23 million cut to the AmeriCorps Program), the ARC program was not refunded for its 3-year re-compete grant, thus eliminating all positions. Over one hundred positions across the country have been eliminated from these non-profit organizations. These are positions that provide direct service to a community that is in intense need. These are not just arts education organizations (Al-Bustan itself is quite unique in the constallation of Arab American non-profit orgs) that are getting their positions cut, these are social service positions as well, that serve an under-served constituency. Be it the Americorps position at the Nationalities Service Center that acts as a liason for the Iraqi refugee community in Philadelphia, or the position at the Arab American Community Development Corporation that provides social services to the Arab American community in Kensington.
These developments put an undue amount of pressure on the remaining staff to achieve the same level of expansive programming without the capacity to support it. For the school system of Philadelphia, it remains to be seen where the budget shortfall will take us, but it is certainly not pleasant. Cuts to vital programs such as Americorps and our education systems will have disastrous effects on our communities, not just in Philadelphia, but around the entire country.

Reviving Culture Through Cooking

In anticipation of Camp and its theme—the arts, culture, and environment of Lebanon—I have been reading about this tiny country’s rich cuisine. I happen to find eating and cooking to be one of the great pleasures of life so I’ve found this research to be delightful. But as I read through cookbooks of Lebanese food I am beginning to see that these regional recipes should be read as much more than guides to make food but as cultural artifacts.

For three years Chef Ramzi Shwayri, Lebanon’s top culinary celebrity, journeyed the Lebanese countryside in search of the simple, traditional dishes that demonstrate the handicraft behind Lebanese food and compiled them in a huge book of some 740 pages. Included in the book are specialties from each region such as sfiha (lamb pizzas) from Baalbeck and safsouf (bulgur and chickpea salad) from the Bekaa Valley. Each town, it seems, has its own recipe for kibbe, dumplings with a meat shell and filling. The endless varieties on the traditional Lebanese food that he offers are not meant to be merely a resource for home cooks but to document Lebanon’s culinary landscape.

The varieties of these dishes found across the diverse regions of Lebanon represent the “process unfolding over a certain geography” that Musa Dağdeviren is similarly attempting to record in neighboring Turkey. Shwayri and Dağdeviren have dedicated their lives to keeping food traditions alive, recognizing the cultural heritage that their country’s food represents. For them, collecting these recipes is more than documenting the past, it is taking an active role in resisting the culinary fusion that has come with globalization.

With restaurants moving away from home-cooking, the rustic fare of the countryside is increasingly forgotten. Thus cooking these regional recipes is an act of cultural preservation. So, go celebrate the cuisine of Lebanon by cooking Kibbe Naye (Lamb or goat tartare). This recipe comes from Zgarta in northern Lebanon.

Kibbe Naye
Adapted from Ramzi Shwayri
Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

3/4 cup bulgur wheat
1 pound lean boneless high-quality lamb or goat, ground twice (ask the butcher to do this)
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
Half an onion, finely grated
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil leaves
Pine nuts, for garnish
Coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves, for garnish
Finely sliced onion, for garnish
Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish.

1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Place bulgur wheat in a medium bowl, cover with boiling water and allow to sit for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and ice, and set aside.

2. Place bulgur in a fine-meshed sieve, rinse with cold water, and allow to drain. Place meat in a deep bowl. Dip hands in ice water, then knead meat for about 2 minutes. Add bulgur to meat a handful at a time, first squeezing out excess water.

3. Add lime zest and grated onion to bowl. Chill hands again in ice water, and knead mixture until blended. Add cinnamon, pepper, basil and salt to taste. Chill hands and knead again. Cover mixture and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

4. Shape meat into an oval mound on a serving platter. Use tip of a knife to incise a decorative pattern into meat, and insert pine nuts as desired. Garnish platter with mint leaves and sliced onion, and drizzle edges of platter with olive oil. Serve cold. (The mixture may also be rolled into balls of any size and deep fried or grilled.)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

(Photo: The meal that Chef Ramzi was presented with in Deir el Aachayer in southeastern Lebanon.)