Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Name Game

A rose is a rose is a rose is a merganser: It may smell as sweet but the nose isn’t listening – it knows there’s a duck in there somewhere. Suggest to your dining partner that he’s just swallowed a slug without the pretty shell, and the haughty chef may decide to delete escargot from the menu, the better to avoid further unpleasant incidents.

So what’s in a name? Clarification – what IS this thing we’re naming. Hope and ego – what do we WANT it to be. Marketing, of course. And, to the perceiver, memories, sensation recalled, color, tastebud angst or pleasure, love perceived or anger translated. Or simply mystery: the scent of dianthus – pinks – is, to me, haunting in a most pleasurable way, yet I cannot recall any wonderful thing happening among them; only that, even when I was a small child, they called to me and I vaguely assumed they called from a past life.

... two farmers and a tomato...

I went to the Tuesday market in Depot Park to talk to Greg Cox and Steve Chamberlain about what’s up in farmers’ lives these days; how they keep connected with other farmers and with trends and developments in farming and in food.

There at Steve’s Dutchess Farm stand I found the first tomatoes of the season – pints of red cherry tomatoes and big unripe tomatoes piled like sleek slumbering piglets in their basket. I took the last pint of cherrys and was about to pass over the unripe ones when the half of my brain that has any sense at all said, “Just a sec, Tomato Woman, those are NOT unripe, they’re green!” A black cast iron range loomed before me. Sizzling lard, a bowl of whisked-up egg, a mound of crushed saltines on a sheet of waxed paper; those green rounds dipped in each, browned and crisp on the outside, custardy and sour within, the salt shaker – Fried Green Tomatoes. Life, bitter and sweet, on a plate. These green tomatoes were ripe and rife for Fried Green. If I were Steve I believe I’d put up a sign that suggested that very thing – sometimes the imagination needs a nudge to consider the divine.

...Rutland Farmers’ Market...

The Rutland Farmers’ Market, itself, has a little name intrigue. When it started back in the ‘70s it was called the Rutland County Farmers’ Market, and it stayed that way until the early ‘90s when a small group splintered off to become the Vermont Farmers’ Market. I’ve said before that the farmer is a noble being – nowhere did I say that as a group they are not overly independent, crotchety and – tsk tsk – too often guilty of ignoring the maxim, United We Stand – so important to struggling groups like small farmers.

Over the years the two groups have seen some back and forth movement by individual farmers according to issues, so much so that I no can no longer keep them straight, and to my mind they are one market. To their credit, they’ve all found ways to fit together well under the larger tent of the Rutland Farmers’ Market, and, this year, it seems, they will gain yet another name when they initiate the Winter Market in the rear of the Co-op building and continue to widen our access to local food.

Everyone I talk to agrees that this summer the Market has reached a new breadth of vitality, with vibrant and colorful produce and splendid crowds of appreciative shoppers. With thirty years of experience behind it, the Market is flourishing because it is in the position to provide what an increasing number of us want and need – organic and sustainably-grown local food.

Steve is particularly enthusiastic about his membership in an informally named Networking Group that includes several New York and Vermont farmers who join together to buy seeds and supplies, tour each other’s farms and, in general, share their knowledge. That’s where he met Paul Horton, of Benson, whom he invited to join the Rutland Market. This year Paul’s Foggy Meadow Farm shines with an artist’s palette of produce at the Saturday market; and that’s surely not the only way in which we are all indebted to Steve’s networking.


Up at Boardman Hill, Greg is holding forth to a customer about good food for low-income people. “Crap calories are cheap,” he says. “We have to teach people that paying a little more for good local, organic, food is worth it. And we have to figure out more ways of getting that food to people who are stretched.” Greg is, at heart, the original philosopher farmer. The organization in which he is perhaps most notably involved – chairman of the board, as it were – is RAFFL – Rutland Area Farm & Food Link.

RAFFL! What a great name – straight on, utilitarian, but amusing at the same time – kind of raffish, with the connotation of ‘taking a chance’ and, it would seem, unmistakable.

RAFFL has many routes to meet its goal of linking farmers and their food to consumers, but the most immediate one is to find land for incubator farms and community gardens. “We’ll provide the land and the advice and some communal machinery while novice farmers learn to farm. When they get their feet under them, when they’ve learned and have some success, they’ll start looking for their own land and a new wannabe farmer will move onto that incubator land.” Greg is gleeful when he adds, “We’ll be seeding new farms all over the county.”

The seed for RAFFL itself, came to Tara Kelly and India Burnett Farmer when, in their jobs with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, they realized that all the towns around had “preserving our agricultural heritage” as one of their major goals, and yet none had concrete plans to reach that goal. What Tara and India saw as RAFFL’s mandate was not just conserving open agricultural land but making that land viable for active agriculture.

With that mandate came a string of corollary goals when a board of directors was collected and heads put together. India relinquished her job with the RRPC and became RAFFL’s coordinator; and just recently her main job has been finding that large piece of land, close-in to Rutland, not used by other farmers, to become the base for an Intervale-like Community Farm and Agricultural Resource Center. (I can’t believe it – there’s no R in there.)

A little riff on RAFFL, here: Tara tells me that lots of people mistakenly call it the Rutland Area FOOD & Farm Link. “It all depends on your point of view,” she says, “and most of our calls – where can we find fresh corn; who has u-pick strawberries – come from consumers. But we really wanted to stress the Farm connection, and Farm does come before Food.” That would be Rutland Area FARM and Food Link, thank you very much.

The demand for services is outstripping India’s ability to give the time and assistance needed, especially with the almost full time job of finding land. Perhaps a school calls and wants to know how to access local food for its cafeteria. Systems are not yet in place, a broker is needed to support the ordering and distribution of local food. More funds need to be raised. Etcetera.

The need for this organization is overwhelming, and their 2004 startup was none too soon. Pick up their green tabloid-style Locally Grown Guide for more information. It will be somewhere in almost every store you visit. Have them find it for you, and suggest they display it in a more prominent place if it’s hidden.

...the Co-op...

One of the most basic links in our Rutland Area Food Chain is the Co-op; you know – the building on Wales, just off Washington. Rebecca Rubin was the first manager back when it started in the mid-‘90s as the Rutland Area Food Co-op. A couple of years ago the name was changed to Rutland Area Food Co-op dba (doing business as) Rutland Natural Foods Market, and that is still its legal name. However, it is being changed, as we speak, to Rutland Natural Food Market: The Co-Op. No matter. Really. Whenever you hear any of these names – and most often it will be just The Co-op – you will know it is the store on Wales Street where you can buy local and organic and sustainable food and sundries and drinks. You can join up for $10 a year and be a member – getting a small percentage discount – or not: Everyone – member or not – is welcome to shop there.

With Becca back as manager and with a long-overdue public consciousness of the importance of eating local, sustainably grown food, the Co-op is in the throes of exciting growth, planning to accommodate the Winter Farmers’ Market in its back theater space this winter, expanding its retail and office space, and, incidentally, looking for funding. Join it. It’s an investment in your safe and healthy food future. And always think of it as OUR Co-op. That’s the nature of a co-operative, that it belongs to all of us and all of us are responsible for its success.

As a matter of fact, invest in all these places, the Farmers’ Market by shopping at it and getting to know the farmers; RAFFL and the Co-op by using them, volunteering for them and, at the risk of being crass, giving money to them if you can afford it.

...life itself...

All of these food intimacies may seem cloying and tiring, too time-consuming to deal with the earnest people who are drawn to the cause of good food, whose edges are not ground down by corporate sameness but remain prickly. But then consider all of the nameless and faceless and edgeless people who are manufacturing the industrial and international food that fills our large stores, of the thousands of fingerprints on that food, the numerous laxities likely in its manufacture, the tremendous carbon footprint of its importation, and we might find the time.

In a recent trip down US 81 to North Carolina I saw enormous food processing plants and warehouses that covered numberless acres of former farmland, and that were preparing to ship, in the long convoys of humongous trucks that clog the highway, overwhelming amounts of – to borrow Greg’s word – crap, that is becoming, increasingly, a non-sequitur in our brave new world.

Perhaps you’re haunted, as I am, by the headline last week announcing that China’s food and drug czar had been executed as a symbol to the world that China recognizes the fact that they can’t ship tainted food. What kind of food could come out of a country that is capable of such an ineffective and barbaric act? Add to that the remark I heard dropped casually by an industry executive the other day, that “China owns the global garlic market,” (Garlic!) and you realize anew that the fight for real food is the fight for life itself.

...and finally, invest in some Fried Green Tomatoes...

Slice one tomato per person into thick, ½ inch slices. Dip into flour, then beaten egg, and then into seasoned flour, cornmeal, or crushed saltines. Fry in a mixture of lard, butter, and/or olive oil. Adjust the heat to achieve a crisp golden crust and a custardy interior. Salt liberally. Eat. You can do okra the same way, and eggplant, too. John Martin Taylor, in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking recommends putting the sliced vegetables into ice water for about 30 minutes before frying. And I have more suggestions in my book, Tomato Imperative! that is available at the Co-op.

I adore fried okra, and pickled okra and okra straight off the plant. But most people equate okra with slime and don’t buy it. A farmer or two at the market grew it for a couple of years. I was one of the few who bought it, so they quit growing it. No okra now to learn to like, to broaden and brighten our palates.

They built it but we didn’t come.
And that’s the name of the game!

This Twice Bitten Column appeared in the Rutland (Vermont) herald on July 17, 2007

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