- Our industrialized food system is economically unsustainable. Modern farming is based on energy-intensive practices to operate farm machinery, provide chemical fertilizers, process and package foods, and deliver food products to markets worldwide. This is reasonable when resources are plentiful and cheap; however, we all know that fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource. For some time, geologists have been predicting that we are nearing, or have already passed, a state of “peak oil,” defined as “the point or timeframe at which the maximum global petroleum production rate is reached, after which the rate of production enters its terminal decline.” Many reputable sources suggest that we have already surpassed the peak of global production, and even the most optimistic pundits suggest it will arrive within the next 20-25 years. Regardless of one’s view of the matter -- chicken-little pessimism or pie-in-the-sky optimism -- there seems to be broad consensus that our current reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable over the long term. Demand will go up, and eventually it will outpace supply. Prices will go up, some say precipitously. And our current system of cheap and ubiquitous food production and distribution is increasingly at risk of going up in a cloud of black, oily smoke.
2) Our industrialized food system is overtaxing the environment. Even as debate continues on the timing and effects of “peak oil,” there is little debate about the environmental effects of current energy-intensive farm practices. As Bill McKibben states, in his book Deep Economy, “Even before we run out of oil, we’re running out of planet.” In 2001, nearly five billion pounds of pesticides were used in the U.S., with the vast majority used in agriculture. That’s more than 16 pounds of pesticide for every person in the country! In the same year, 20.6 million tons of commercial fertilizer – or nearly seven pounds per person -- were used to support agricultural practices. Like the proverbial frog in a pot that can’t sense water rising in temperature until it’s too late to jump out, we are becoming inured to living in this chemical stew. Even the USDA concedes that excess nutrients can harm the environment, polluting ground water and/or surface water, lakes, streams, and rivers. In a 1998 report to Congress, the EPA estimated that more than 3.5 million acres of U.S. lakes, 84,000 miles of U.S.-rivers and 2900 miles of estuaries are significantly affected by nutrient pollution. Finally, agriculture significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, generally in the form of carbon dioxide (from the combustion of fossil fuels used in farm machinery, the production of pesticides and fertilizers, and the global transport of farm inputs and foods), methane (from rice and cattle production) and nitrous oxide (from manure, tillage and the volatilization of nitrogen fertilizers). The International Governmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that on a global level agriculture's share of total anthropogenic emissions amounts to about 50 percent of methane, about 70 percent of nitrous oxide, and about 20 percent of carbon dioxide.” That, too, is unsustainable.
3) Our industrialized food system is increasingly vulnerable to disruption. Increased mechanization, coupled with genetic engineering, encourages farmers to practice monocropping (i.e., growing the same high-yield crop year after year on the same land) to achieve maximum efficiency in crop production. According to Andrew Kimmel (2002), “almost all of our processed food products are made from the same few raw food materials – corn, wheat, rice and potatoes. As a result, just nine crops now account for over three-quarters of the plants consumed by humans.” This practice has also resulted in what Kimmel characterizes as a “shocking loss” of plant diversity, with 97 percent of vegetable varieties available in 1900 now extinct. Monocropping increases the risk of massive crop failures due to pests and pathogens and raises the frightening specter of mass food system vulnerability in the new age of bioterrorism.
4) Our industrialized food system is failing to meet the nutritional needs of millions of Americans. While monocropping supports increased yields and growth in export dollars, it can’t meet the full nutritional needs of the population; it takes a wide variety of grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins to do that. As commodity crops increase as a percentage of total farm output, consumption of refined grains, fats and sugars is also increasing, much faster than consumption of fruits and vegetables. This is particularly true in low-income, inner-city communities, where residents have increasingly limited access to fresh, healthy food. According to the USDA’a 2006 Survey of Food Security, more than 30 million Americans were food-insecure at some time during the year in 2006, meaning that the food intake of one or more adults was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food. These days, fewer than one-third of Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables to meet the USDA recommended guidelines. At the same time, we’re seeing an alarming increase in the incidence of obesity and related diseases in the U.S., an epidemic that has now grown to crisis proportions.
5) Buying locally gives us more control over the safety, freshness and nutritional quality of our food. According to Halwell, (2004), statistics show that in the U.S., fruits and vegetables travel between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers (1553-2485 miles) from farm to market. Products subject to long-term transport and storage suffer – in terms of freshness and nutritional quality -- in comparison to products delivered fresh from the farm. While food preservation, packaging and distribution techniques have come a long way – (the U.S. Army, using high-technology techniques, now produces a sandwich that stays “fresh” as long as three years!) – any foodie knows that a tomato that was picked green, shipped here from Mexico or Holland and ripened with ethylene gas in a food distribution center can’t hold a candle to the real deal, picked in the morning and eaten the same day. By buying from local farmers (if you’re discriminating), you can avoid meats raised with hormones and antibiotics and avoid produce raised with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers or processed with additives and preservatives. You also get higher value, because you’re paying for real food – instead of wasting money on packaging, processing, storage or transport.
6) Buying local protects the environment. Buying locally means less fuel burned to transport food, which means less pollution. Research tells us that local and regionally sourced meals use 4 to seventeen times less petroleum consumption and results in five to 17 times less carbon dioxide emissions than a meal purchased from the conventional food chain. You can also seek out organic producers, creating increased demand for organic products and helping to reduce the earth’s load of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. A diversity of farms, crops and pastured livestock contributes to biological diversity and reduces the disastrous environmental effects of industrial agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
7) Buying local promotes sustainable food practices. By buying local, you can seek out organic producers who employ earth-friendly farming methods or raise free-range animals. They are stewards of the soil, understanding that healthy soil is critical to the production of healthy, nutritious food. By supporting local, organic producers, you’re promoting local access to fresh, health food, while reducing the environmental and health effects of industrialized agriculture.
8) Buying local promotes food security. One of the biggest issues with our current food system is that many people and communities have lost the ability to produce their own food. In the aftermath of 9/11, it didn’t take long for the USDA to notice the vulnerabilities inherent in our current food system. According to Halwell, “One estimate suggests that most major cities in the eastern United States have less than two days’ supply of food on hand and are thus vulnerable to disruptions in transportation.” If you go to the USDA website, the landing page maintains a threat advisory; today, (12/30/08), it’s “elevated.” There’s an entire section devoted to Homeland Security and the many initiatives underway to keep our food system safe. That, coupled with the seemingly endless string food recalls this year (for e coli, norovirus, botulism, salmonella, undisclosed allergens and more) reinforce the fact that it’s important to know how your food was raised. A strong connection to small, local farms can provide assurance that people in a community have access to safe, healthy, nutritious food.
9) Buying local supports and promotes family farms in Colorado. According to the local extension service, “Colorado lost more than 1 million acres of farm land from 1997 -2002. As markets vary and farm land continues to be sold to development, the urgency to help farmers stay on the land increases. The USDA National Commission on Small Farms defines small farms as ‘farms with less than $250,000 gross receipts annually on which day-to-day labor and management are provided by the farmer and/or farm family that owns the production or owns, or leases, the productive assets..[these have an average] net cash income of only $23,159...over 80% of a farmers gross sales are absorbed by farming expenses.’” In the U.S., the share of the consumer’s food dollar that goes to the farmer has dropped from over 40 cents in 1910 to just above 7 cents in 1997, while the share going to processing, shipping, brokerage, advertising and retailing firms continued to expand. When you buy from them directly, you’re supporting an important Colorado asset.
10) Buying local supports our economy and community. Research suggests that industrial farms can be a net drain on a local economy, while a diversity of smaller farms contributes to a vibrant local economy. There is a positive economic “multiplier effect” (the number of times a single dollar is circulated in a community) when you buy locally. Studies have shown that money spent with local producers returns two to five times more income to the local community than money spent with national retailers. Halwell (2004) reports on a study done by the USDA: “an anthropologist working at the USDA tried to assess how farm structure and size affect the health of rural communities. In California’s Jan Joaquin Valley, a region then considered to be at the cutting edge of agricultural industrialization, he identified two small towns that were alike in all basic economic and geographical dimensions, including value of agriculture production, except in farm size. Comparing the two, he found an inverse correlation between the sizes of farms and the well-being of the communities they were a part of. The small-farm community, Dinuba, supported about 20 percent more people, and at a considerably higher standard of living – including lower poverty rates, lower levels of economic and social class distinctions, and a lower crime rate – than the large-farm community of Arvin. The majority of Dinuba’s residents were independent entrepreneurs, whereas fewer than 20 percent of Arvin’s residents were, most of the others being agricultural laborers. Dinuba had twice as many business establishments as Arvin, and did 61 percent more retail business. It had more schools, parks, newspapers, civic organizations, and churches, as well as better physical infrastructure – paved streets, sidewalks, garbage disposal, sewage disposal and other public services. Dinuba also had more institutions for democratic decision making and much broader participation by its citizens.”
 McKibben, B., Deep Economy, Times Books, Henry Holt & Company, LLC, New York, 2007, pp. 18
 2000-2001 Pesticide Market Estimates, Usage, http://www.epa.gov/oppbead1/pestsales/01pestsales/usage2001_2.htm
 Agricultural Chemicals and Production Technology: Nutrient Management, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/AgChemicals/nutrientmangement.htm
 A Farmer’s Guide to Agriculture and Water Quality Issues, http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/wq/wqp/wqpollutants/nutrients/nutrients.html
 Wightman, J., Production and Mitigation of Greenhouse Gases in Agriculture, in Climate Change in Agriculture: Promoting Practical and Profitable Response, http://www.climateandfarming.org/pdfs/FactSheets/IV.1GHGs.pdf
 McCarl, B. and Schneider, U., Curbing Greenhouse Gases: Agriculture’s Role, http://agecon2.tamu.edu/people/faculty/mccarl-bruce/papers/728.pdf
 Kimmel, A., “Monoculture Versus Diversity, The Illusion of Choice” as published in Fatal Harvest, The Tragedy of industrial Agriculture ©2002 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Island Press, Washington, Covello and London, pp. 71
 Ibid, pp. 71
 Putnam, J., Allshouse, J. and Kantor, L.S., 2002, U.S. Per Capita Food Supply Trends: More Calories, Refined Carbohydrates, and Fats, Food Review, Vol. 25, Issue 3, Economic Research Service, USDA, http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/FoodReview/DEC2002/frvol25i3a.pdf
 Nord, M; Andrews, M. and Carlson, S., Household Food Security in the United States, 2006, Economic Research Report No. (ERR-49), 66 pp., November 2007
 Putnam, J., et al, 2002
 Halwell, B., Eat Here – Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, 2004, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, D.C., pp. 29.
 Ibid, pp. 33
 Ibid, pp. 30
 http://www.fda.gov/opacom/7alerts.html, (Accessed December 30, 2007)
 http://www.coopext.colostate.edu/boulder/AG/smallfarms.shtml (Accessed December 30, 2008)
 Halwell (2004) pp 45
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Wendell Berry (one of my favorite authors) reminds us often that "eating is an agricultural act."
Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals (2006, The Penguin Press, New York), brings this notion to life, by tracking four meals along three predominant food chains: the industrial, the organic and the hunter-gatherer.
- He demonstrates the true cost of industrialized agriculture by following a MacDonald's Happy Meal back through the golden arches, a food processing plant, an animal feedlot and a grain elevator – to a 160-acre cornfield in Greene County, Iowa.
- He explores organic food production via two very different meals: the first comprised of “organic” ingredients purchased from Whole Foods and the second harvested from his labors on an innovative, self-contained family farm in Virginia.
- Finally, he takes us back to our collective hunter-gatherer pre-history by preparing an entire meal from food he grew, foraged and hunted by himself.
Along the way, he demonstrates that our current food system is broken -- and that we ought to pay more attention to what we eat -- and where it comes from.
Who hasn't -- in a moment of weakness, on an extended road trip or in a multi-tasking meltdown -- opted for fast food? Pollan takes us to MacDonald’s, reminding us that one in three American children eat fast food at least once a day. If that doesn't scare the pants off of you, follow this food chain with Pollan, and find out what you're really eating when you nosh on Chicken McNuggets. Chicken?
Hardly! According to Pollan, 13 of the ingredients that go into a Chicken McNugget are corn based: “the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri- and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leaches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative.” Further investigation reveals that, of 60 items on a MacDonald’s menu, forty-five contain corn – in the form of high fructose corn syrup or other corn derivatives, and out of the 45,000 food items in your average grocery store, more than a quarter now contain corn.
Our current food system, based as it is on commodity monocultures, cheap fossil fuel, chemical inputs and government subsidies, has created a glut of cheap corn -- and the food industry has responded by putting it in practically every processed food we eat and drink. It’s in meats and fish, sodas and fruit juices, ketchup, mayonnaise, yogurt, soup, cereal, and snack foods; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a processed food without it.
Why do we care? Because all of this cheap corn is making us fat. Our food and farm policy is promoting a glut of cheap calories at the expense of our collective health. As Pollan explains: “Since the Nixon administration, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day (up from 3,300, already more than we need.)” The government is subsidizing junk food at the expense of real food (i.e., fruits and vegetables.) Today, you can buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies for a dollar; that same dollar would only buy 250 calories worth of carrots. These economics gave rise to the current “super-size-me” phenomena – offering bigger and bigger portions of processed foods at only incrementally higher prices -- which not only describes current portion sizes, but also their effect. The omnipresence of cheap, processed food has fueled an alarming increase in obesity and related illnesses in the United States.
Pollan exposes other hidden costs as well. Modern farming depends on a ready supply of cheap fossil fuels -- to run farm machinery, manufacture chemical pesticides and fertilizers, transport and process commodities and deliver food to consumers. In fact, when Pollan calculated the energy cost of his trip to MacDonald’s, he found that it took ten calories of fossil fuel energy to process one calorie of food energy. And that doesn’t count the environmental costs of soil depletion or the unrelenting assault of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on the quality of our soil, water and air; nor does it factor in the cost to our collective health of the gratuitous use of antibiotics and growth hormones.
By the time you finish this “happy meal”, you’re looking for another option.
Pollan then highlights emerging food system models by tracking down two organic meals. For many of us, the word organic conjures up pastoral visions of happy farm animals cavorting in clover and patchwork family farms with healthy vegetables bursting forth from rich, healthy soil. But by tracking “organic” foods from a Whole Foods Market, Pollan reminds us that there are many variations on this theme. It turns out his “free range, organic chicken” was raised in a warehouse shed with 20,000 other chickens in a process reminiscent of a factory farm. These birds qualify as ‘free-range’ because there’s a little door in the side of the shed leading to a grassy area outside. However, as Pollan explains, “since the food and water and flock remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled into their habits…and since the birds are slaughtered at seven weeks, free-range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.” On the farm he visited, none of the “free-range” chickens availed itself of the option.
His “organic” asparagus came from Argentina; his blackberries came from Mexico – using up gallons of fuel and releasing pounds of CO2 en route. A test organic TV dinner from Cascade Farms turned out to be a “highly industrialized organic product, involving a choreography of thirty-one ingredients assembled from far-flung farms, laboratories and processing plants scattered over half a dozen states and two countries, and containing such mysteries of modern food technology as high-oleic safflower oil, guar and xanthan gum, soy lecithin, carrageenan and ‘natural grill flavor’ (?)” And he learned that “organic” milk often comes from factory farms, where ‘thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced ‘dry lot,’ eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day.”
This is not to disparage the movement toward organic foods, which Pollan concedes is contributing to a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; but it does serve as a warning that it pays to know your producer if you want to know the truth about your produce.
Pollan then takes us to Polyface Farms, a “radically innovative” 550-acre farm in Virginia that produces chicken, beef, turkeys, eggs, rabbits, pigs, tomatoes, sweet corn, and berries. Technically, Polyface Farms is not an “organic” farm. Joel Saladin, the farm’s owner explains it this way: “We never called ourselves organic – we call ourselves ‘beyond organic.’”
Through a diligent commitment to ecological wholeness -- and by practicing intensive- management (rotational) grazing, promoting polycultures, abjuring agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals, composting waste and maintaining 450 acres of his farm in woodlands to promote biodiversity – Saladin is able to produce 30,000 eggs, 10,000 broilers, 800 stewing hens, 50 beeves (representing 25,000 pounds of beef), 250 hogs, 1,000 turkeys and 500 rabbits on 100 acres of pasture every year, without using artificial fertilizer, hormones or antibiotics. And he markets everything locally, via direct to consumer sales at the farm store, farmers’ markets, metropolitan buying clubs, and sales to local shops and restaurants. His farm is a testament to sustainability.
Pollan’s predominantly Polyface-Farm meal (roast chicken with corn, salad, and chocolate soufflé, complimented by a local Viognier) was a fitting reward for his week’s worth of work on the farm. And, it was healthier than other meals – the grass fed chickens and eggs contained less total fat and less saturated fats than the same food from grain-fed animals, as well as higher levels of omega-3s (essential fatty acids that play an indispensable role in human health) and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA (a fatty acid that recent studies indicate may help to reduce weight and prevent cancer).
Pollan’s final adventure, creating an entire meal from food he had hunted, grown or foraged is an entertaining tale of foraging for Chanterelles and hunting wild boar in California’s oak forests, picking lettuce and fava beans from his garden, harvesting salt from the salt ponds of San Francisco Bay and yeast spores from the air outside his kitchen window, and picking cherries from Fulton Street trees. Along the way, he confronts fundamental issues related to food: the vagaries of eating in the absence of a national cuisine, the ethics of eating animals, and more.
At the end of the meal, Pollan acknowledges that he’s not advocating a return to this primitive relationship with food: “This is almost impossible ever to do, which is why I said there was nothing very realistic or applicable about this meal. But as a sometimes thing, as a kind of ritual, a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it is worth preparing every now and again, if only as a way to remind us of the true costs of the things we take for granted.”
All told, these four meals -- and their respective histories -- give us plenty to chew on. As Pollan concludes: “Imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in true accounting, it really cost…. We would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.”
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
If you've never been to the Mercury Cafe, make a New Year's Resolution to go there. Now.
A Denver icon, the Mercury Cafe has long been in the forefront of the sustainability movement. In fact, Greenprint Denver, the Mayor's Sustainability Initiative, has recognized "The Merc" as a Denver success story. The following is taken from the Mercury Cafe's website:
"The Mercury Cafe's living wall helps filter air pollutants such as carbon dioxide while beautifying the surroundings and cooling the building's southern exposure. Integrated sustainable practices like these are served up with Colorado-grown cuisine and a hearty side of art, theatre, music and swing dancing. This unique combination sets the Mercury Cafe apart as a prominent community-focused business.
When the Mercury Cafe relocated to California Street 17 years ago, owner Marilyn Megenity committed herself to creating a sustainable haven among the desolate, concrete parking lots bordering her property. With each successive year of operation following the cafe's establishment, the restaurant, now a legendary Denver icon, continually adopts new sustainable practices that foster an ongoing "greening" of not only its location, but also its food and staff.
Megenity began by planting a dozen trees around the cafe, along with a garden of sage, mint, grape vines and various fruit trees. The vegetation now extends up the side of the building, acting as a living wall to offset carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the building and simultaneously serving as a natural cooling mechanism.
To irrigate the garden, Mercury Cafe employees use water and coffee left unconsumed by clientele, and to quench the living wall, excess ice machine water is piped to its base. As another water conservation measure, 11 toilets in the facility are outfitted with hand washing sinks above the top of the tank. The water from the sinks provides greywater to flush the toilets. Internal recycling methods such as these are a key component for maintaining the integrity of Mercury Cafe's sustainable principles. In terms of the building itself, the Mercury Cafe is a champion for alternatives. It was the first business and restaurant in Denver to generate power from its own private wind turbines. Located atop the cafe, each 40-foot turbine supplies the restaurant with 400 watts. Another 1,000 watts of energy come from 18 1.75-kWh rooftop solar panels, and any energy that is not self-generated is purchased through Xcel Energy's WindSource program.
The Mercury Cafe makes an effort to keep energy usage at a minimum: you won't find a TV or a computer anywhere in the building. Additionally, the restaurant is not air conditioned. Instead, six low-energy swamp coolers are used, and ample windows open to provide cross ventilation. They also use a concentrated refrigeration method which requires that three refrigerators are turned off regularly, and its live entertainment is all acoustic - relying on audience participation through song and dance as its primary energy source.
Megenity's personal environmental ethic began with the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1960s. She became an active part of the social change which swept the United States as young people began to whole-heartedly support environmental ideals.
Those principles also led Megenity to think about local economy. Now, 99 percent of the menu's meals are made from organic food, 80 percent of which is sourced locally. Additionally, she tries to hire staff from neighborhoods in close proximity to her restaurant. This way, the Mercury Cafe establishes its locality and further reduces its carbon footprint by minimizing employee travel.
Over the years, the Mercury Cafe has developed a strong base of loyal clientele who appreciate their environmental decisions, and who prefer healthy and organic meals. Megenity cites other benefits resulting from their sustainable practices, including a reduced public service bill and a cooler building. She acknowledges that local support comes with a cost, however: it is nearly twice as expensive to do business locally. Good food may come at a high price, but the Mercury is dedicated to providing customers with nothing less than the "greenest" meals.
Continuing their progressive development, they are in the process of installing more wind turbines. Eventually the Mercury hopes to go off-the-grid, becoming a self-powered establishment. Megenity suggests that the enduring success of Mercury Cafe has resulted from a simple premise that "everyone wants a healthy environment.""
O.K. That's all well and good, but how's the food? We're going there this week, so stay tuned....
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
I started with a quick inventory of my garden. A long Indian summer had left us with bunches of chard, carrots and sweet potatoes. We had basil, curry, cilantro, rosemary and parsley growing in a kitchen window and a handful of garden tomatoes, onions, peppers and eggplants in the refrigerator. In the basement (our quasi -root cellar), we had pumpkins, acorn squash and dried garden herbs, including sage, oregano, marjoram, and lemon thyme. Not a complete feast, but I figured it was a reasonable start.
My next task was to find a turkey. A quick search of the Internet led me to The Eastern Plains Natural Foods Co-op ( http://www.easternplains.com/), where you can order all natural meat and poultry from local area family farms. That, in turn, led me to Tedach Ranch, a farm located in Bennett, Colorado. On their website, they invite you to visit the ranch.”Not only will you get to see beautiful and rare poultry,” they claim, “but you’ll learn what a free range poultry operation is all about and acquire a better appreciation for the American family farm.”
I immediately shot an email to the owner, Dallas Gilbert, asking if I could visit his farm and get a Heritage Turkey for Thanksgiving. He gently suggested that this was not the time to try to visit a turkey grower. “What! Are you nuts? It’s November!” he reminded me. “I’m up to my elbows trying to get 400 birds rounded up, processed and delivered.” (I’m paraphrasing here; he was way more polite than that, but I got the underlying message.) He invited me to visit after the holidays, and then he directed me to Marczyk Fine Foods, where he said I could still order one of his Heritage Birds.
Lo, and behold, it was a feast!
Bruschetta (fresh baked baguette sliced and grilled)
Eggplant dip and Tomato, Pepper, Onion, & Cilantro spread
Colorado Cheeses: Camembert, ColoRouge and Queso de Mano
Wine: Garfield Estates Viognier 2006
Spiced Pumpkin Curry Soup
Bread Stuffing seasoned with garden Onions and Herbs
Medley of Roasted Winter Vegetables
Wine: Guy Drew Vineyards 2004 Syrah
Apple Pie (Granny Smith Apples from the Western Slope)
Close friends joined us to share in the fun. We all ate heartily and left the table groaning with satisfaction. We also learned some things about eating locally. To wit:
Provisioning takes time. In past years, I’ve been able to shop for Thanksgiving in an hour. This required research. Where to find a local turkey? What vegetables are still in season? Is chard a reasonable substitute for Brussels sprouts? On the positive side, it also added the dimension of relationship. Pete Marzcyk advised me on how many apples I’d need for the pie. “It takes this many apples to make a basic pie,” he said, creating a basketball-sized space with his hands. “But to bake a pie like my Mom’s…” With a wistful look, he threw his arms open. As we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, I could envision Dallas Gilbert finally sitting back with his feet up and a rogue turkey feather in his hair. Provisioning took more time, but it was quality time. It was an exercise in mindfulness, requiring attention to the task, so that, in the end, it qualified as experience vs. chore.
You can’t get everything. We couldn’t find Colorado cranberries. Or Colorado coffee. No green salad; our kitchen garden had been nipped by frost and the lettuce in the cold frame had just sprouted. We cheated a bit, using olive oil to sauté the chard, adding cinnamon to the pie, and using flour and sugar from who knows where. But for the most part, we stayed true to the challenge. For a single dinner, it’s no sacrifice; in fact, it’s fun. As a lifestyle – (think of going for months with no fresh strawberries, blueberries, oranges, or bananas) – it would take some getting used to.
Some foods cost more. Buying fresh, healthy food can be more expensive than buying processed foods. The turkey cost more per pound than your average bird, and the wines fell in the $10-$20 range. I justified the extravagance in two ways. First, we offset some costs by using food from the garden. Second, I was comforted by the fact that money spent in the local economy has a multiplier effect. Studies have shown that money spent with local producers returns two to five times more income to the local community than money spent with national retailers. I felt it was money well spent.
Cooking is labor intensive. No boxed stuffing, turkey-in-a-bag, frozen vegetables or canned cranberries here. Everything was sliced and chopped and kneaded and pounded right in my own kitchen. It took me two days to make dinner. I thought of my great-grandmother, raising eight children on a farm outside of Rossville, Illinois, cooking three meals for ten people every single day, without so much as a mix-master. In between boiling giblets and slicing apples I sent her a silent nod. And while I was rolling out dough, I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving -- that some arts have passed down, that I can still make a passable pie crust with a bit of flour and lard and salt.
The food – and the experience – was incredible. Everything was great – from hors d’oeuvres to dessert. The turkey was juicy and pure. As an exercise, I looked at the ingredients of a processed frozen turkey, which included “up to seven percent of an (undisclosed) solution to enhance juiciness and tenderness (?)”, as well as modified food starch and sodium phosphates. No word about how the bird was raised. The label on my bird touted what it didn’t have: no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no artificial ingredients, no preservatives -- just free range turkey, with giblets. The bird browned up like a photograph in Gourmet magazine; the meat was tender and delicious. As my friend Straz said, “even the white meat has flavor.” Also of note were the Colorado wines and cheeses, challenging our collective assumptions about imported fare. And the pie -- thanks to Pete Marczyk’s mom, Bill and Shirley Ela and my great-grandmother Lillian -- was spectacular! Most importantly, the dinner vaulted us into the realm of communion vs. commodity.
It was a dinner born out of an idea, sourced locally, made with care and shared with dear friends. It was sweetened with memories of digging in the dirt, watering the garden, watching rainbows rise up from the earth and visiting with neighbors while we gardened. It was enlivened by the challenge of learning new things (i.e., if you use lemon thyme in your stuffing, your kitchen will smell like lemons for at least two days!) And it was liberally seasoned with potential new friends and neighbors who labored willingly to provide us with these offerings. It served to remind me of the thousands of things we have to be grateful for -- every minute, every day.
Come to think of it, it was a pretty traditional Thanksgiving, after all.