Soul Food

Righteous take-out for body and spirit

click to enlarge EARTH MOTHER: Integrity Organic's owner Susan - Huff is a baker, cook and community organizer. - VALERIE MURPHY
VALERIE MURPHY
EARTH MOTHER: Integrity Organic's owner Susan Huff is a baker, cook and community organizer.

"Eat Locally, Act Globally" is the motto of a restaurant where I dined recently, a teensy take-out called Integrity Organic Take-Out, along St. Pete's bustling Central Avenue. It has been open only six weeks, but it already draws an enthusiastic regular following for its specialty — locally grown, fresh, organic foods.

"I call it my little piece of Berkeley in St. Pete," said its energetic owner, Susan M. Huff, whose purpose is to sell high-quality, healthful food — and to placate her husband, who had been complaining because her popular, part-time baking enterprise had taken over their living room.

The menu is a simple sheet of paper. The whole restaurant fits into two very modest rooms. Respected restaurateur Emmanuel Roux, who has operated The Garden next door for many years, provided the space, along with free technical assistance to help Huff qualify for a license to operate.

The tiny eatery has a two-seat bar looking out the front window onto Central Avenue and a few small tables in an adjacent walkway outside.

I enjoyed its moist fruit breads, excellent soups and primo salads, not to mention the nitrite- and antibiotic-free meat in its glam chicken salad wrap, and its unusually tasty desserts, such as the lip-smacking bread pudding.

But Huff, a mesmerizing whirlwind of a person, does so much more than just run an eatery. She is on a mission to help people appreciate the pleasures and benefits of organic eating — and gardening. Proceeds from the restaurant support educational programs for elementary schoolchildren.

"I just love food. I live for food," she said while talking on the phone and captaining yet another one of her projects, the every-other-Wednesday food co-op she operates for 30 local families, who pick up their boxes of organically grown produce outside the restaurant.

Her stepfather was a chef, her beloved grandmother a serious gardener, and Huff has melded those two passions into her life's work. She is an expert baker, a fine cook and one heck of a community organizer. As a mom, she started teaching children how to garden about eight years ago when she became appalled at how much processed food people gave their kids.

"It became a real passion for me," she said. She founded a nonprofit organization that supports her efforts, called Headfirst Farms. The restaurant and the food co-op support struggling farmers who want to grow pesticide-free crops; when she isn't tending the restaurant, she is helping first graders at Perkins Elementary raise money for and plant an organic garden.

"Somebody's gotta do this," she said. "I had 27 first graders last year, and not one of them ever saw a carrot come out of the ground. It's pretty amazing how disconnected they are from their food source."

She also is working with officials of the city to found a community garden in hopes of encouraging inexpensive, pesticide-free produce, social opportunities for youngsters and seniors, and respect for nature. But if you want to skip the politics, just turn up at the restaurant and let Huff do the hard part for you.

"Some people will drive all the way across St. Pete to get organic juice, and some, they just like my wraps."

If you're there at breakfast time, you've got a treat coming in the form of handmade fruit breads, including a knockout moist and hearty banana bread ($1.50 slice, $3.95 per loaf), pear-cranberry or pineapple nut. The granola is delectable too (8 ounces, $3.95; 20 ounces, $6.95; 32 ounces, $11.95). Huff's best seller, however, is her Mother Earth Muffins ($1.50), made with zucchini, carrots, raisins, cranberries, pecans, flax meal and ground grains.

At lunch time, you can choose a delightful, 100 percent organic chicken salad wrap ($6.95) studded with cranberries, celery and pecans, and melded with tofu mayonnaise. Her fabulous raw power salad ($5.95) contains carrots, beets, romaine, avocado, spring greens, hearts of palm, olives, sprouts, tomato and cucumber. Of course, the dressings are handmade as well: low-fat raspberry, miso mustard or shittake sesame.

The vegetables used in the food taste remarkably different from those grown with pesticides. The fresh carrots in the salad, for example, have a sweeter taste and are free of the annoying chemical aftertaste that degrades such a dish at other restaurants.

One day, I sampled a velvety sweet potato and carrot soup (small, $2.95; large, $4.95; and family size, $6.95) with fresh snow peas. It was terrific, but for one small detail: It was only lukewarm. I also tried a smooth hummus ($2.95) that was yummy — except for the embedded toothpick that I fortunately found before I choked on it. The restaurant also offers two other flavors of hummus, black bean and green scallion, and a number of other dips, such as pesto ($4.25), that you can either eat there as side dishes with chips or pita or take home to use over pasta. If you've invited people over for drinks after work, order a container of exotic, black-olive goat cheese paté ($4.50), and serve with chips or pita.

When you get to dessert, try the cosmic cookie ($1.25), a unique and lovely, crunchy medley of nutty, fruity flavors.

Food Editor Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 116.

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