Changing the Tenses on Rooftop Farming

Until recently, when I thought of the word “farm” I pictured, you know, a farm–grazing cows, big tractors, an old broken down barn, rows of tomatoes and eggplants, a gruff, ruddy-complexioned man in plaid shirt, scraggly beard, and mud-encased boots.  I never ever thought of concrete, bus exhaust, sealants, wind, or structural capacity. That is until I met Casey Townsend, a young and serious farmer, whose Northampton Square Rooftop Garden, NSRG, is on the top of a four-story parking garage wedged between Boston Medical Center (BMC), Boston Emergency Medical Services, and two residential high-rise towers. This 6,500 square foot parcel of tilled 14-inch deep soil is expected to yield 2500 pounds of strawberries, rhubarb, bunching onions, scallions, tomatoes, blueberries, cucumbers, zucchini, and lots of other vegetables—like daikon.

“I have never grown daikon as well on a land-based farm as I have on this roof,” said Townsend dressed in a black ski cap and green parka on a cold April day. “They came out about 14 inches long. They were gorgeous.” Townsend’s farm might be in the middle of Boston but his veggies think they are further south, say, in the zone of Providence, Rhode Island. “If the seed package says 45 days, I can grow it in 40,” he said. He plants his peppers and eggplant in concrete cubes and the residual heat comes off the roof and surrounding buildings creating a microclimate. This allows him to grow varieties that need more heat, like collards, and start them earlier in the season.

The Northampton Square Rooftop Garden has three sections: traditional organic, biodynamic where Townsend plants with the cycles of the moon, and bio-intensive where by constantly improving and maintaining the fertility of the soil, he can yield a lot from a little space. Most of his produce goes to the Preventative Food Pantry at Boston Medical Center, a corridor and elevator walk away. No fossil fuel, no food miles, and still warm from the sun. You can’t get more local then that.

Mohamed Hage, the founder of Lufa Farms in Montreal, one of the first large-scale rooftop farms coined this type of farming as “Agricultural 2.0.” Rooftop farms range from small residential plots to large-scale commercial or high-tech greenhouse farms. Regardless of the size, “Green roofs are popping up across America,” said Lauren Mandel, Project Manager at Roofmeadow–a Philadelphia-based green roof firm–and author of Eat Up: The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture.

Spicy mustard, bitter chicories, and sweet lettuces burst from the rooftops of New York City these days. Gotham Greens has a 15,000-rooftop garden in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And they are slated to open a 60,000-foot garden in Queens. The Grange just added chickens to their 65,000 square foot farm over Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. Whole Foods is planning a 20,000-foot greenhouse atop their Gowanus store and another on top of a Lynnfield, Massachusetts store. Higher Ground Farm is opening this spring on top of the 55,000-foot Boston Design Center. There’s a farm atop the Community Building and Restoration Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And the list goes on.

Mandel attributes the boom to an overall awareness made possible by social media and online articles. This made it The Next New Thing to start a rooftop farm. Once word spread, it drove innovation for better soils, irrigation systems, and green power. When Mandel started writing her book, three years ago, she wrote about rooftop farming in the future tense–“Rooftop gardens will …” she wrote. But with their popularity, she’s had to change every will to a have.

But the boom isn’t just a hipster farmer in Brooklyn with his plaid shirt and muck boots; these farms are addressing a need. “In America, over an acre of farmland is lost every minute,” said Mandel’s book. And the website of Feeding Cities–a conference held at the University of Pennsylvania to examine urbanization and food security—predicts that “By 2050, 7 out of every 10 humans will live in cities.” And as Townsend points out, “as oil prices rise through the roof it will be harder to transport food.”

Hyper-local farming has many benefits. No food miles: those blueberries don’t have to travel from Southern Chile to your plate in a New England winter. Fewer airplanes and trucks means less fossil fuel burned. Rooftop farms create insulation for their buildings in the winter and absorb sunlight in the summer reducing bills by 30 percent some sources suggest. If there are enough of them in a city, it can reduce the overall urban heat island effect—the higher temperatures in cities due to the black roofs and asphalt. Rooftop farms can transform a hot, empty roof into something beautiful and productive. They can create sustainable agricultural environments in urban centers. And, there’s the economics for the farmers. People pay more for produce in the cities. “You don’t have to be a struggling farmer,” said Townsend. “You can get an increased income growing near the city.”

But sky-high farming isn’t as simple as hauling some dirt to your rooftop and tossing in some seeds. It requires planning and is expensive. The cheapest Mandel has heard of is $5 a square foot for a Brooklyn farm. But that farm had volunteers and many donations so might not be an accurate cost. Most soil-based farms, she said, cost about $20 per square foot. But if you’re building a high-tech greenhouse, for hydroponic farming, then the skycould be the limit.

Farmers, on average, according to Mark Winterer, founder of ReCover Green Roofs in Somerville, Massachusetts, make $3 a square foot. But the bigger the farm, the more they can make because of economies of scale. “The people that can afford it are visionaries,” Winterer said. “They put a big value on the marketing of it. But it doesn’t make dollars and sense.” But once marijuana is legalized, “that will be huge for green roofs,” he predicts. Farmers can charge more for pot then they can for carrots.

Not every building was meant to hold forty pounds a square foot of dirt and water. Urban agriculturalist Sandra Fairbank and Chef Michael Leviton found this out when planning their farm atop a garage in Cambridge. Part of the roof can sustain 10 inches of soil, enough for tomato plants. But other parts can only support three inches of soil. That’s fine for microgreens but not for Townsend’s daikons.

Roofs also need to be totally waterproof and sealed with a hydrophobic membrane. Otherwise, umbrellas will be needed in the rooms below as rooftop farms, like all farms, need a lot of water. Townsend waters for 2 to 2 ½ hours a day. His farm gets extra dry because of the sandwich effect with the parking garage below and all of the air above.

And then there’s the theft. Land-based farms don’t usually have vegetable bandits in suits looking for a sun-ripened, juicy tomato to liven up their dull sandwich. But at Townsend’s farm, accessible to the surrounding buildings, he does. To confuse the bandits, he plants tomato varieties they won’t recognize. “Partly it’s education. But, if they don’t know what it is they won’t steal it. All my tomatoes are heirloom–none of them turn red. People keep looking at them, ‘oh, they’re still green…still green.’ So they don’t pick them. I probably lost 200 pounds of produce last year. But if I was at a land- based farm I would lose stuff to deer, turkey, or woodchucks.”

Posted in Boston, Business, Food, Gardening | 3 Comments

The Bridge Street Butchery

ImageThe most scenic way to arrive at the Bridge Street Butchery in Waitsfield, Vermont is through the covered bridge, preferably on foot. That way, you can spy the 1833 beams and take time to gaze over the side at the Mad River below. Once on Bridge Street, you pass Peasant restaurant with its Tuscan menu, and All Things Bright and Beautiful, across the street, where Gaelic McTique crafts wooden Christmas ornaments of your pet.

Then you arrive at 40 Bridge Street. The wooden sign Bridge Street Butchery hand-painted in a clear and clean font hangs over the door of the 1845 yellow clapboard building. Bells clink clink as you open the door. The owner, Jeff Lynn, 43, or his mother Suzee say hello. If you’ve been there more then once they’ll most likely greet you by name. It’s so welcoming you feel like pulling up a chair and settling in. Although this is a butcher shop, not a coffee shop, it’s a place you want to linger.

“I wanted an old-world feel,” said Lynn about his store. On trips to Italy and Argentina, Lynn and his wife Tracey loved shopping daily at the old-fashioned butcher shops. He longed for fresh meat wrapped in paper not sitting on Styrofoam under plastic wrap in his town. “We didn’t have anything like that here,” he said. Here being the Mad River Valley, home to many multi-generational farms and an incubator for artisan food. Green Mountain Coffee got its start there, as did American Flatbread.

Lynn’s friends tried to talk him out of starting the shop. “You always hear about butcher shops closing, it’s a flawed business model. The margins are so small and you need to be smart about pricing,” he said. But Lynn was determined, maybe even a little stubborn. He had a vision and wanted to make it happen. “I would love to see this kind of old-time business come back in full force. It’s what I want for myself. It’s what I want for my shop. It’s what I want for people who love food,” Lynn said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Lynn is part of a trend of people opening butcher shops. It could be the economy–people are eating at home more and looking for better quality. Or, maybe it’s people wanting to eat local meats. “Whatever the root cause, boutique butcher shops saw an increase in demand. There are 2500 more specialty store butchers now than there were 5 years ago. By percentage, that’s a huge difference,” said Eatocracy, CNN’s food blog.

Lynn was looking for an old-world building for his old-world concept when Hurricane Irene ripped through Vermont on August 28, 2011 chewing up bridges, shredding roads, and turning communities into islands. The Mad River raged in Waitsfield and flooded the buildings on Bridge Street. There was so much destruction, that the previous tenants of the building decided not to reopen. But the owner rebuilt and Lynn saw an opportunity. The Bridge Street Butchery opened in December 2012.

In keeping with the old-world concept, Lynn doesn’t have a refrigerator or freezer. He turns over his inventory every two to three days. “Out with the old, in with the new,” he said. Lynn’s meat selection depends on slaughter dates at the local farms. Sometimes it might be whey-fed pork from Jasper Hill Farm, grass fed beef from Gaylord Farm, or Creekstone Farm Angus strip steaks. He makes his own sausages every couple of days and other specialty items like Mediterranean-stuffed pork chops.

“I actually like to see the animals alive first,” said Lynn, when asked how he picks his meat. He checks to see if they’re clean, well cared for, and what their pastures are like. “Then,” he says, “the meat speaks for itself.” He’s lucky because the Mad River Valley has many farms freeing him to be picky and have high standards.

Standards are something he cares deeply about. “I would rather shut the doors then compromise standards,” he said when asked what worries him most about running a small town butcher shop. Cash flow, of course, is also something that keeps him awake at night.

To help with that, he diversified by adding fish to his store. Gorgeous sushi grade tuna beckons you to the fish case where you might discover Katama Bay oysters from Martha’s Vineyard or homemade sushi rolls that Lynn makes when he arrives in the morning around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m.

Fresh fish in the middle of Vermont, hundreds of miles from the ocean, doesn’t sound local. But in the Mad River Valley where locavore is a religion companies like Wood Mountain Fish, the sole purveyor of the seafood to Lynn’s shop, find inspiration.

Ethan Wood, the owner of Wood Mountain Fish, goes to the Boston fish pier every morning. He scours the day boat caught fish looking for clean eyes and bright red gills. If the fish passes his inspection, and it’s something Lynn wants, he packs it on some ice in his fuel-efficient Dodge Sprinter van and drives it 200 miles north to Bridge Street and to other restaurants in the area.

Lynn has been cooking since he was a kid. “Mom was on the road quite a bit so we had to pick up some skills,” he said. His parents divorced when he was young so he and his brother often made their own meals, in the Cleveland suburbs. Their father lived in the Boston area. After college, Lynn worked in restaurants in Martha’s Vineyard and Boston and ended up at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier. He owned the Sweet Wood Grill & Bar at Powder Hound in neighboring Warren, but was ready to try something new.

The Bridge Street Butchery has only been open for five months but Lynn feels optimistic. Eighty percent of his customers are local which is a sustainable number in a tourist town. His small selection of sandwiches, named after famous bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge or Ponte Vecchia, bring people in at lunchtime. Lynn knows a butcher shop won’t make him rich. But he traded in the stress and expense of a Boston or New York for the lifestyle of Vermont. It’s a gamble, he knows. “Check back with me in 6 months.”

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Plodding not Walking

Longteine and Kenthao de Monteiro, founders of The Elephant Walk restaurants in Cambridge, Brookline, and Waltham grew up in the privileged class in Cambodia—he was a diplomat. They fled to safety in France when the Khmer Rouge took over their government in 1975. A diplomat without a country was unable to find work, so they established the first Cambodian restaurant in France, according to their website. In 1991, they moved to the United States to be near their daughter and opened their first Elephant Walk.

It was an exciting time for food in America. “In the 1980s and 90s, a new, worldly, haute cuisine grew up from this convergence of Asian cultures in American cities. In 1988, chef Norman Van Aken borrowed the term fusion from jazz to describe the new, experimental way of cooking, whether it included Asian flavors or not,” wrote Sara Dickerman for in 2012. The Elephant Walk restaurant focusing both on Cambodian and French flavors exemplified this fusion concept. The restaurant became popular and expanded to two other locations.

The problem with The Elephant Walk today–now run by Longteine and her  executive chef daughter Nadsa de Monteiro and her executive chef son-in-law, Gerard Lopez–is that it hasn’t evolved from its beginnings. It might have been new and exciting in 1991 but now the food and the presentation seem dated. For a pricey restaurant like this one, one expects fresh and flavorful options, not bland, tired dishes marketed as exotic. This Elephant is no longer walking, it’s plodding.

Let’s start with the menu. It’s too long. The French and Cambodian split personality coupled with vegan and gluten-free offerings overwhelmed this reviewer. It’s difficult to make satisfying choices when there is so much on offer. Can the Rouleaux–a crispy, light spring roll–stand up to a steak in a robust red wine jus? Or will it leave your palate confused and discordant?

Then, there’s the food. My meal started with stale bread. Next was the Potage Parmentier, served in a highly stylized soup bowl. This uninspiring potato soup with scallion crunch on top–tasting like crispy onions sprinkled from a can–did not warrant the pomp.

The Crêpe au Canard et Champignons sounded mouthwatering—“Warm crêpe filled with duck braised in soy-ginger and tamarind juices, with mushroom and scallion; garnished with dressed greens.” Instead, it was a delicate crepe overwhelmed by a hearty duck stew and chewy mushrooms. The greens were limp, lackluster, and not evenly dressed.

The shrimp in the Curry de Crevettes were rubbery and cold. The sauce was insipid, the red peppers and snow peas elastic not bright, and the cold rice mounded in the corner of the plate reminded me in taste and display of what used to be served in the mess hall on my father’s Navy ship.

But if S’gnao Mouan, Cambodian chicken soup with lime juice, lemongrass and basil, or Amok Royal, a fish stew with coconut milk and Khmer seasonings, is what you’re after, The Elephant Walk is the only Cambodian restaurant in the area. And overall, the Cambodian choices on the menu are more tasty then the French. The Avocat Kanthor, a timbale of diced raw tuna, avocado, and lemongrass, is comparatively fresh and light.

Despite the unevenness of the food, the two-story restaurant is always lively and crackling. There is often a wait. The crowd varies from older professorial types to families to young hipsters with ear gauges. The yellow and red boldly painted abstract paintings that decorate the walls and the giant sculpture of an elephant head that hangs over the comfortable waiting area add to the pleasing ambience. The wait staff is friendly but sometimes overwhelmed.

Maybe people come out of loyalty. The Elephant Walk is committed to the Benefit Restaurant Project. A Benefit Restaurant selects a non-profit each month to receive a percentage of its sales for that month, with a smaller percentage of sales held in reserve to assist in an emerging humanitarian crisis. They have been very generous to a friend of mine who founded a school in Cambodia—offering the restaurant for fundraisers.

Maybe they come because Cambridge has a dearth of East Asian cuisine. It’s a  safe bet for a group of diversified eaters with its myriad of options and pleasing cocktail menu and wine list. But safety doesn’t equal exciting. To move from a plod back to a walk or maybe even a stride, The Elephant Walk needs to pair down its menu, ramp up its seasoning, and take some risks. A lot has happened to the food world and diners’ expectations since 1991.

Posted in Cambridge, Food, Local, Restaurant Review | 1 Comment

A Doctor’s Oath: The Story of Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Eisa


Here’s a profile I wrote about Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Eisa from Darfur for

“Legally, I couldn’t touch them, but ethically I had to, even if it put my life in jeopardy. In medicine there is nothing called ethnicity,” he said.

If only there were more Dr. Mohammed’s in the world.

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When 85*-year-old Jiro Ono says he dreams of sushi, I believe him. This master sushi chef goes to work every day at his 10-seater restaurant in Tokyo thinking of how he can improve his sushi. As a recipient of three-Michelin stars, it would seem that he’s figured it out. But his attitude of constantly striving is what makes him such an inspiring character in the mouth-watering documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Ono was just 7 years old when his alcoholic father abandoned the family. At age 9 he was told, “you have no home to come back to.” So he left and started apprenticing at a sushi shop. He’s been perfecting his craft ever since.

In Japanese, they call artisans like Ono, shokunin. “I do the same thing over and over improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve. Even at my age, I don’t feel I’ve achieved perfection but I feel ecstatic all day. I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of shokunin,” said Ono.

*documentary was released in 2011. 

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No Longer Chicken about Chicken

I went to Back to Basics cooking school at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts a few years back and blogged about it for The website no longer exists so I’m reprinting them here. Enjoy!


Day Eight

Chicken: versatile, economical, and satisfying. Trussed and stuffed, it can dress up for your finest Chardonnay. Breaded and fried, it can dress down for your cheapest beer. Whether it’s roasted, fricasseed, or grilled, this bird is perfect for any occasion.

Chicken is a staple in my house. With a couple of picky eaters, it rarely fails. Our favorites include tenders simmered in Indian spices and Ina Garten’s lemon chicken breasts. Although I cook it regularly, and love every bite, I have never overcome my squeamishness handling it. Maybe it’s the texture. Or maybe it’s because it actually looks like a bird.

Over the years, chickens quality and safety have come into question because of the production methods at many processing plants. According to an article in The New York Times in 2006, “The government said that 16.3 percent of all chickens were contaminated with salmonella.” I have read articles and cookbooks on the safe handling of chicken. I know to segregate, clean up, and never undercook. But my nervousness has led to less succulence and more dryness in many of my dishes. I enter Day Two of my “Back to Basics, part II” class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts looking for the answer to my chicken conundrum. How do I handle it safely and cook it to perfection?

My instructor, Steve Nill, starts the class with the merits of buying a whole bird instead of pieces. “You are guaranteed better quality and value if you carve it yourselves,” he says. “Sometimes portions of the bird might be discarded because of disease but the rest is packaged.” He spares us the details but the bottom line is nothing can hide with a whole bird.  With the pieces that you are not using, he suggests, freezing them on a cookie sheet. Once they are frozen, they will not stick together, and can be stored in a freezer bag.

Next, Steve goes over two chicken cooking essentials:

1. Don’t undercook. Salmonella is killed at 165 degrees. Stick meat thermometer in thickest part of thigh. Juices should run clear, not red or pink. It will continue to cook 5-10 degrees out of the oven.

2. Don’t overcook. It will be chewy and dry.

Well, there’s not a lot of room for error here. Undercooked, you’re sick. Overcooked, you’re parched.

Then our lesson moves on to the results of a recent chicken taste test at the school. Students tried Bell and Evans, Purdue, kosher, and a supermarket brand. Bell and Evans won. Kosher was second. Perdue and the supermarket brand tied for last. It turns out you really can judge a chicken by its color—if the color looks like your friend with the flu, don’t buy it.

After our lesson, we gather in the test kitchen to learn how to cut a chicken. “The chicken basically has seams and tells you where to cut,” Steve says, as he eases his knife down one. He points out the pope’s nose and the oyster—two pieces in my 41 years of eating chicken I have never heard of. I fumble my way through the carving, burrow out the oysters and claw for the tenders. My hands feel slimy as I resist tucking my hair behind my ears. I wish I had opted for the gloves.

With our freshly cut pieces we divvy up the recipes and I get the whole bird to roast and stuff. There is a two-stage process to roasting. The temperature should be high at the beginning, than lower it. This creates a crispy skin and an evenly cooked interior. Steve shows me how to truss my bird, which preserves the shape, keeps the stuffing in place and equalizes the internal temperature. Once my roast is in the oven I learn how to fry, barbecue on a stick, cook under a brick, and make roulade (rolled) chicken.

My favorite time of class arrives and it is time to sit down and eat. We devour Indian spiced chicken with a yogurt raita, arugula salad with roulade of chicken stuffed with sundried tomatoes and goat cheese, my roast with cranberries, apples and walnuts stuffing served with a calvados cream, southwestern fried chicken, peppered chicken with hot and spicy ginger sauce and spicy stir-fried sesame chicken, green beans and shitake mushrooms with noodle cakes.

As we are cradling our stomachs, Steve offers “le trou Normande”—a shot of calvados to aid our digestion. “Le trou” means hole in French. In the Normandy region of France it is customary to drink this apple liqueur in the middle of a meal to make room for more food. Which means, I get to go back for seconds. Hurray! Every dish is delicious and juicy. My chicken repertoire has expanded and my riddle has been solved.

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Scrap the Barilla: Make Your Pasta from Scratch


I went to Back to Basics cooking school at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts a few years back and blogged about it for The website no longer exists so I’m reprinting them here. Enjoy!

Day Seven

What is it about pasta that we love so much?

Certainly, it is inexpensive, filling, quick and foolproof. There’s a linguistic element, too, that harkens romance: the very words Tortellini, Ravioli or Linguine roll exotically off the tongue. But perhaps pasta’s role as the ultimate vehicle for olive oil, butter, cream and cheese trumps all that. In our house, each season features its own sauces. Winter means putanesca; in spring we savor asparagus, morels and cream. Simple fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella are summer night perfection, and it wouldn’t be fall without pumpkin ravioli smothered in sage and brown butter.

In the approximately 1500 times I have served pasta, never once have I made it from scratch. I lump the whole business in the “my last name maybe Baker but don’t ask me to make dough” category. I’m not going to go there. Correction: I wasn’t gonna go there, until Steve Nil at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts gave me a nudge from behind.

“Back to Basics II” begins in the classroom with a lesson in Italian geography. I never gave much thought to the very interesting fact that there is a wheat belt in the middle of Italy where durum wheat is grown and artisanally crafted. The terroir in this region yields dry pasta that is chewy, flavorful, dense and textured. We sample coarse De Cecco, less coarse Montebello and U.S. market leader Barilla, which is smooth as silk.

Pasta-cooking essentials are a list of dos and don’ts. Do salt the cooking water heavily, like seawater. Do stir the pasta after you add it to the water, so it doesn’t clump. Don’t overcook pasta: there should be a faint color of white in the middle of the noodle. Don’t rinse the pasta when it has finished cooking, because the gluten and salt that would wash away are essential not only for flavor, but for sauce integration. Do use a spider, or spoon skimmer, to scoop pasta right from water to sauce; this helps it retain its moisture.

Lesson over, lesson learned: it’s on to the test kitchen and pasta making. We make a well in a soft mound of flour, to which we add three eggs and a sprinkle of salt. We stir it with a fork, gradually drawing more flour from the walls into the well. Once a ball is formed, we knead it for ten minutes. I push the ball down with the heel of my hand, fold it over, turn it one quarter and repeat. It’s tough work and my shoulders ache. We check for bubbles (there are none) and texture–it’s as soft as a baby’s bottom. In the meantime Steve (that rat) makes his dough in the KitchenAid standing mixer in three minutes.

The pressing and cutting of the pasta dough is an art unto itself. My square emerges from the pasta roller looking like a long, wet sock. Steve’s assistant, Liz, laughingly likens it to Italy’s boot. I let these long lasagna strips dry, then feed them through the spaghetti-cutting attachment. In an amazing stroke of luck, my long boots morph into perfectly formed spaghetti. I dip the noodles in flour and arrange them in a mound. They cook in just a few minutes, and I transfer them directly from pot to sauce.

My classmates and I fill our warmed platters with conchieglie al forno with veal and mushrooms, spaghetti aglio e olio, tagliatelle tre colore with proscuitto and red peppers, fennel and endive lasagne, orchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe and squash ravioli with brown butter and hazelnuts. Take note readers: every dish tastes even better then it sounds. I bravely resist thirds, but stuff my containers gladly (and greedily) with leftovers. An afternoon snack looms on the horizon, and maybe…just maybe, a new KitchenAid. It’s true the sauces were sublime, but today, the freshly made pasta was the real star.

Tomorrow: chicken

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