Tuesday, July 06, 2010

a nice culture of food

Last Tuesday I demo-ed zucchini fritters at the farmers’ market congruently with Jill Corey and cohorts from the Vermont Department of Health signing up a steady stream of WIC (Women, Infants, Children) recipients.

Fecundity was rampant, with babies both born and not yet born, women with high bulging bellies on which they rested their arms as they waited in line – as though leaning on a fence –  and chubby children.
The women seemed shy and shrank from my proffered wares – perhaps because they didn’t know they were free – but some children said “I’ll take one.” And, with a small dot of maple syrup on the top of the fritter – I think I called them pancakes – they liked them, and came back for more, and with their example others became less reticent. I had recipes for them – simplest thing in the world, cheap, easy, good food. Tasty. Great way to get zucchini down kids’ gullets.

Others stopped by, too, and said they recognized me from that glamorous picture with my Rutland Herald column, and were eager to talk about this fascinating thing – food! One of them, M, is a person I’ve known for many years but not well; not least, perhaps, because he lived in Italy for some years (in a 13th century house that he restored from ‘stones’). While I fried fritters, we chatted, and he rhapsodized about the food in Tuscany that “you would die for” – truffles, for instance, and local sausages and cheeses. Olive oil. M’s yield of olives came just over the brim of the amount needed to have his own olives crushed into oil that came exclusively from his own trees. How many of us can say that?

We talked of just the incandescent life of food from a place that has grown and made its own food for centuries the same, with very little industrial food or indeed food from “away”.  “These excellent zucchinis came from Radical Roots,” I tell him, “and the unsurpassed maple syrup from Smokey House.”

We grin at each other, he snaps a couple of photos (see above) and is on his way. Later he posts one of the pics on Facebook  but, most importantly, below the photo he commented with on-line punctuation, “theres a nice culture of food that gravitates around the farmers market and coop great world class cheeses breads and veggies and organic meat.

Those words shook me to my very soul. They made me happy. We’re so used to keeping our noses to the grindstone, keepin’ on pushin’ that old boulder up the mountain that sometimes we forget to pause and just  recognize and enjoy what has been accomplished, tip the bottle of Vermont wine over the glass that is sometimes also made locally, and drink it with the pastured and gardened food, and realize what these last thirty years have wrought.

Then, of course, we need to put our shoulders (nose?) back to the (let me continue to mix my metaphors here – all about pushing heavy things uphill) grindstone, wheel? and make sure it keeps going. We never reach the apex of the hill, but we reach plateaus, and then if we get too involved in enjoying the plateau we might begin to slide down again instead of... well you get the gist.

An editorial in Monday’s paper  rhapsodized about farm-fresh food and buying local from farmers’ market and farmstand, and pointed out what economic sense it makes to shop that way. Certainly the Rutland Farmers’ Market has matured beautifully into an every Saturday festival of lovely food, music, and crafts, with a smaller market taking place on Tuesday afternoons. And the Boardman Hill Farmstand out on rt. 4 West, as well as the Radical Roots Farmstand on Creek Road, are conveniently chock-full of beautiful produce. I stopped at the Timberloft Farmstand in West Rutland last week, too, for some of the last strawberries available.

We are lucky people in that, beyond the fact that we need not rely on industrial food, we also find a very genuine social structure when we visit with the farmers. For these are people with whom you, not occasionally but often, have eye to eye conversations. All the shades of social confusion are torn down and tossed streetward as you speak with like souls about the bones of life, really. It’s not passion as much as it’s basic stuff. We are talking of our births and our deaths when we talk of soil and food, and in these conversations we find real connection.

The Rutland Co-op was one glaring omission in the editorial’s laudation of local food, one that I am not sure was intentional but that some of us find deserved. For while our Co-op’s mission statement stresses a partnership between it and local farmers and the exhortation to offer to its members and other shoppers Local First, recently we find it is sadly falling short of that goal, as well as in the quality control of less local foods.

I try to do all my shopping at the Co-op, or at least 90% of it, but a few Saturdays ago I had to go to the supermarket for onions, of all things. The ones at the Co-op were sprouting and browning, while the kale – which was vibrant and plentiful at the Farmers’ Market I had just left – was, in the Co-op’s sparse presentation, yellowing and limp. I think we can all agree that the produce section of a co-op must be at the same time its lovely face and passionate heart, and ours has been let fall far from that ideal.

And it’s not just produce. Last week I went in to buy a bag of Smokey House charcoal. That charcoal is an amazing thing – not only is this old craft learned and practiced by the young people at Smokey House in Danby, which is something we should support, but we benefit by that support because the charcoal is excellent, burning with an even, intense heat down to the barest skim of ashes. I have not found any as good.

I feared I would be unsuccessful when I saw bags of generic charcoal ranged in front of the entrance. “No,” I was informed by the woman in charge of that department, they would no longer be stocking Smokey House charcoal, and if I insisted on having that particular charcoal I could always buy it at the Farmers’ Market!

Great marketing, huh? And one less reason why I would need to enter those Wales Street doors. But enter them I will, and I hope you do too, because we need to make our Co-op a strong link in a sustainable food system that is so important to our, and our children’s, very survival, and to that end we need to keep pushing that boulder up the mountain. I say “our Co-op” because if you are a member – $10 or $20 a year – then you are an owner, as I am, and you have a say in how our dear Co-op is run.  You’ve seen the bumper sticker: The Co-Op: We Own It! Well, it’s true.

We in this area are food centric in the way that other regions are who know their food from beginning to end and who go out of their way not to rely on industrial food. It’s timely and seasonal, so that when something comes along that must be captured and dealt with immediately or never we drop everything and... render some lard from a freshly killed pig, say, or drive up to Shoreham for a day of picking sour pie cherries in order to make a rare cherry pie; and to macerate some of them in rum and sugar for a Christmas liqueur and a New Year’s surprise of potent cherries.

We have the opportunity to do that because we have a solid base in this state of producers of rare and decent foods – it’s food that demands respect. The wife of the owner of the orchard (Champlain) was thrilled that we had come to pick sour cherries instead of sweet because her husband had just remarked that nobody wanted sour cherries and he “might as well pull those trees out.” This is just one more instance of Use it or Lose it!

Yes, there is a nice culture of food here and in the greater Vermont and adjacent lands, but it is a young culture, burgeoning, and it needs tending and weeding and constant attendance. It is like a garden. If you only look out the window and smile to yourself how fecund it is, suddenly the weeds begin to strangle out the zucchini – and it is all because you did not walk among the rows and notice the first signs of danger. You did not give it your presence and presence is all.

By the way, the recipe for the zucchini fritters or pancakes can be found in the Co-op recipe area.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As you know my dear the root of culture is cultura, meaning, cultivation, which means, well, weeding at the very least!! Can't just sit back and let things get weedy.

I love fritters, any kind. Yours look positively lovely.

Keep digging!