My Local Food Journey
I wrote this piece in the summer of 2007, but I reread it every few months just to remind myself of what I believe in. As in most areas of life, it’s an 80-20 rule: I’m not perfect, but I think about 80% of the time I make the right decisions about eating seasonally and locally. As a bonus, I’ve made alot of new friends in the process!
One day I had a shocking realization: I had absolutely no idea where 99% of all of my food was grown or produced. As a chef I guess I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here. Still, I didn’t take comfort in that, and instead nagging concerns about my food supply continued to eat at me.
It all began when I read an excerpt from the couple who made headlines with their quest to only eat food produced within 100 miles of their Vancouver home. They mentioned in a Gaiam interview that Dungeness crab from the Pacific northwest is sometimes caught, frozen, sent to China to have the shells removed, then flown back and sold in stores in the Seattle and Vancouver area. Something about that just sounded ridiculous to me, and so began my quest to figure out what was important to me relative to the food I eat. Somewhere along the way I made peace with both my food supply and my impact on the earth, and I’m optimistic that my strategy might be an example for others. This past winter, long before the Vancouver incident, I had read about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in two different publications just a few days apart. Not one to ignore coincidences and karma, I researched CSAs in Colorado and joined Monroe Organic Farms from Kersey, CO. I picked them not because they were organic necessarily, but because they deliver to convenient drop off locations each week around Denver, one just 3 miles from my house. I thought it would be kind of fun, easy since they deliver, and certainly, as a chef, I could use the produce. What I didn’t think about and was surprised to find was the emotional connection I would feel to them when I learned they had sold out all of the shares for this summer and that consequently this was the first year in the history of their farm they wouldn’t be going into debt to start up the season.
As I began reading more I started to understand the importance of CSAs and family farms. By supporting them I would be helping to bring locally produced goods to the market and consumers within a local region, thereby reducing the environmental impact of flying food thousands of miles to reach our table, would be helping preserve open space, thereby helping to fight global warming, and would be keeping local families in business, thereby helping our local economy. It all sounded great, and as a bonus the farm is organic, which I will help ensure sustainable farming for the future.
It was clear the farm and the environment would benefit, but imagine my surprise and delight when the weekly shipments started arriving and I realized the benefits to me! I started receiving interesting produce I’ve never seen before like small, round, lemon cucumbers, green beans so prolific and sweet that I began freezing them for the winter when I discovered how much my daughter loves them (funny how kids will eat food if its delicious), and a harvest that grew from 8 pounds the first week to a consistent 22 pounds or more during the past few weeks (and I only had signed up for the smallest share possible). On top of that I was getting free-range eggs that have a rich orange-yellow yolk and, I have to tell you, just taste better.
As my food kept rolling in, I learned a process for dealing with produce that comes to you all at once – funny I never thought about this, but duh, that’s what happens when it’s harvest season. Certain things are best eaten that very day and so whenever we got corn we had it for dinner that night. Potatoes and onions will keep in a cool, dry place so I laid out some baskets for them on my never used laundry room counter where they seem to be doing fine after weeks. Green beans and snap peas – which I stupidly had planted in my own garden as well – just needed a quick blanch before freezing them in individual sized bags so we’ll enjoy them for months to come. Everything else – cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, beets, kohlrabi, turnips, squash, cabbage, broccoli, basil, melons, and much more – we just made our way through each week, eating more vegetables each day than we had in the past (a good thing), and sharing with friends when the harvest overwhelmed us (melons are large and abundant this year). As I looked back at each entry into my dinner journal blog I realized Monroe Organic Farms had become “my” farm. During this same time I had begun reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
The more I read, the more fascinated and concerned I became with our country’s food supply, farming politics, impacts on the environment and the economy, and in general all things related to what I was buying and eating. As I shopped I noticed that all the lamb in the warehouse store was from Australia – why, when Colorado is such a big producer of lamb? (I’m told it’s because the lambs in Australia are grown for their wool and the meat is a cheap by product. This is why that lamb often tastes gamey.) I noticed the peaches were still coming from California even though we were in the middle of peach harvest time on our very own Western Slope. I struggled for awhile with a great deal of guilt – I’m a chef and I have clients who demand all sorts of menus and ingredients. Not to mention I really have no desire to give up French wines, Spanish olive oil, Italian Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, or any number of other specialty items that I crave. But I felt I had to do something to change my food practices, so I began stewing on my dilemma.
The next event was quite serendipitous. A friend brought me two huge bags of peaches from a mutual friend’s tree that weren’t quite sweet enough for eating out of hand and she wanted me (the chef) to make something with them. I pondered peach ice cream but was afraid I’d be tempted to eat it all, so settled on a simple peach jam that I quickly whipped up (I just simmered peeled, diced peaches with sugar for an hour or so then poured into clean jars, covered and froze). I chose freezing because frankly I’m too lazy to do the real work of canning with boiling jars. It’s great jam and I’ve been enjoying it on bagels and giving it to family and friends.
That got me thinking: if Barbara Kingsolver’s family could run a small farm by themselves and put food by, as the saying goes, for a family of four for a full year, couldn’t I start by just taking that lovely local produce I was receiving from my farm and my own small backyard garden and put it up for later in the year? Bingo! That very week I started harvesting an incredible tomato crop from my garden, and with a large colander full each day or two, I decided to get busy. I made three kinds of sauce – marinara, all’amatriciana with pancetta, and sun-dried tomato – plus started just peeling and dicing and jarring tomatoes. I’ve got to tell you, it was simple and I can see that I will be able to use local (my own included) produce well into the winter. Now this was something tangible I could do.
This putting food by frenzy has continued through the harvest season. Frankly, I don’t spend all that much time doing it, but I’m conscious about what I’m buying that’s fresh and abundant locally now that can be frozen for the winter months. I chose freezing for simplicity sake since this food only needs to make it a few months, but also because as I began looking up how to preserve food in a 35 year old cookbook I found in my collection I learned that most foods freeze well and retain better taste if frozen. For vegetables like corn, beans, and peas, just a quick blanch in boiling water is all that’s needed before sealing them up in plastic bags and freezing them. This season I’ve frozen peaches, jam, sauces, tomatoes, beans, roasted peppers (red, yellow, poblano, Big Jim), and pesto. I plan to keep freezing as long as the farmers’ markets and my garden keep going, figuring that the more I put up now, the less I will have to buy produce shipped from South America or Asia during the winter.
I joined the Slow Food Movement earlier this year, mostly because I had the same reaction at seeing McDonald’s in Rome that founder Carlo Petrini did, outrage and disgust. But as I read the eco-gastronomic messages that Slow Food eschews I learned about three pillars of the movement: good, clean, fair. In late August I volunteered to staff the Slow Food booth at the downtown Littleton Farmers’ Market, which turned out to be one of those fortuitous events. As I chatted with the woman who organizes the booth, I mentioned that I was on this journey that started with joining a CSA but was nudged along by Barbara Kingsolver and a healthy does of guilt, and that my mind was spinning a little out of control about what to do next. As I mentioned my concern about the lamb at the warehouse stores, she was quick to share her contacts in the farm community with me. (My daughter would say this was good karma coming my way since I had taken the time to volunteer.) The woman mentioned that just two booths down from us at the market “the chicken lady” had shown up with gorgeous free range Colorado chickens for sale; I bought three. My booth buddy also mentioned Sun Prairie Beef (http://www.sunprairiebeef.com/), and a quick online search led me to ordering 25 pounds of grass fed, all natural beef from a Colorado rancher that I will receive in October. Her final tip was Eastern Plains Natural Foods (http://www.easternplains.com/); they’ve developed a co-op system with producers of beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, duck, buffalo and who knows what else more. I’m going to visit the ranch and discuss becoming part of the co-op so I’ll be able to buy meats locally instead of from Australia.
I finished , Animal, Vegetable, Miracle one morning when I couldn’t sleep past 6:30 for some reason. In the quiet hours of the morning sitting on the deck with my dogs and looking over at my garden as the sun began to take the chill out of the air, it finally came together for me. We aren’t all going to move to Apalachia to live on and run a farm, but there are little steps we can take every day to improve the health and sustainability of our food system. I had a sense of peace when I realized that my stewing had actually yielded a fully baked plan that seems to make sense. Here it is:
- Buy locally produced food – if I can get it in Colorado, I’m going to buy it here. Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese is as good as Montrachet. Our peaches are second to none. If it’s not produced here, I will buy it from as close by as possible – California is a shorter flight than Florida, but Florida is better than China.
- Don’t deprive myself of what I can’t buy locally and don’t feel guilty about it – like I said, I have a wine cellar and I intend to use it. I also can’t live on Rocky Mountain trout alone. But I figure by buying most of my produce, meat and eggs locally, I will have made a huge contribution to the environment, the farming industry, my community and my family. I’m not going to beat myself up over specialty items from other producers in sometimes distant countries.
- Put food by – I know this sounds like Little House on the Prairie or something, but it’s really incredibly easy, especially if you opt for the freezing technique over canning. I’m going to keep going at a full pace for a few weeks and see where it takes me this winter. I’m certain I’ll be rewarded with better tasting produce than something that’s been harvested early, sprayed with wax and pesticides, and shipped 3000 miles. It’s also cheaper to buy food in season and put it up. If you can’t stand the thought of doing this on your own, have some friends join you for a day at the farmers’ market and then head back to one kitchen and do the work together. (Call me if you want to do this with me!)Here are 20 pounds of Colorado peaches I prepared to freeze that should taste great all winter long and work just as well in fruit salsa as a mango flown in from halfway around the world.
- Avoid CAFO meat whenever I can- A CAFO is a Confined Animal Feeding Operation, which is an agricultural business where animals are raised in confined situations and fed an unnatural diet, instead of allowing them to roam and graze. Although I don’t think it’s very nice to the animals, my primary concerns are the quality of the meat and the long term viability of the species. I’ll try to estimate the meat I’ll need for the next six months and purchase from local ranchers who believe in grass fed operations instead.
- Stop obsessing about buying food at the absolute cheapest cost- I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I’ve driven all the way to a warehouse grocery store to save 30 cents on eggs. Going forward, I’m going to focus on quality of the food I’m eating, sustainability of the farming practices, and fair trade policies related to food commerce – and frankly I’ll let the farmer have the extra 30 cents because they need it more than I do. With that said, I actually think some things are costing me less – the price per pound of my beef shipment averages out to $8.99 per pound which is mighty cheap for all natural beef.
I realized this morning that the Slow Food initiatives of good, clean and fair really embody the spirit of my efforts. And while this morning I may have felt like I had arrived at the end of the journey when I figured out this plan, I’m fairly certain the journey is just beginning.