It all started with pastrami. Though I have since found my highest affinity for the combination of pork, salt and time, it was a piece of beef brisket, some pickling spices and lots of smoke that got my attention. My friend Don Todd had just checked out another book from the library ("Charcuterie
" by Ruhlman and Polcyn) and headed straight to the back yard to work out the details. And the results blew my mind. Fast forward a couple of years and you will surely find prosciutto, coppa, pancetta and salami hanging in my curing room.
It doesn’t take long to encounter the quality vs. quantity question when you cure meats. What exactly is the difference between that sopping wet, pale chunk of pork they will sell you cheap at the big-box grocer and the deep red cut that comes from a heritage hog farm? It becomes just one of a dizzying array of variables that I used to not even know existed. Who knew that breed, age, gender, access to pasture and ground-fall fruits and nuts could each have noticeable effects? And could I even have imagined that I would come to prize fat more highly than lean?
There is a groundswell taking hold around us and there are thousands of unique stories of why people are getting excited about the local foods movement; "Ah-ha" moments that lead to a relationship with our food and our environment.
Some are really frustrated with the lack of transparency into the practices of our dominant industrial food system. Is there really a "Jenny" farming those grocery store eggs, and if so, what is she (and here team of corporate economists) feeding the birds? What is the optimal crowding size they have calculated, taking into account disease and death, to maximize profits? Getting to "know your farmer" is a sigh of relief for many who want to put their beliefs into alignment with their diets.
Others will tell you it started with the taste of a particular tomato or a book they just could not get out of their heads. While some take on the role of activist, dedicating their time and energy to creating the new farming infrastructure that is building around us, others simply enjoy the festivity that the HomeGrown Festival brings to our harvest season.
Though I can trace my interest to childhood gardens and my grandparent’s small farm, it was charcuterie that drew a distinct line in the sand around my food sourcing. As I found out more about the practices employed in generating over 90% of our nations meat, I decided that I would opt out of “pigs on drugs”.
Some people will argue that plants and animals raised by hand in a caring and sustainable manner are simply too expensive to be even considered a viable alternative. Yet I would argue that we can not afford not to move to this model of farming. Short-term profit and affordability of these industrial practices are a modern abnormality that we are paying for with long-term pollution, obesity, job loss and dislocation from land and craft.
And really, it is just more fun to know your food. It leads to stories and friendships and learning and amazing flavors. It is, in my estimation, an authentic culture, right in our own region that so many of us have overlooked. A life involving more pots and pans and friends, and less TV and microwave ovens is time and money well spent to me.
These food choices affect more than just our individual lives. In Washtenaw County, we eat about $1 Billion worth of food every year. And we are sending almost every dollar of that out of region and into the pockets of large multi-national companies. They seem to have been able to capture our imaginations with cheap prices and brand names. Somehow we have yet to wake up from our evolutionary urge to take in every sweet calorie we can get a hold of. And the marketing savvy of this industry seems to have no trouble getting us to eat almost every drop of the trillions in surplus calories our present national farm subsidy programs generate. Surely we are now hungry for community and connectedness over another hot-pocket.
We can generate thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new economic activity as we transform our food system. At the Local Food Summit
on March 2nd, the 10% Washtenaw campaign was launched to begin the process of capturing a slice of this pie. Projects are under way to increase information and awareness; to help start new farms and create imaginative distribution systems. And each of us can take small steps, starting right where we are, to ask more about the food we eat and the impact the choices we make have on our own lives and those around us.
There is a little magic that occurs as people discover the potential of food and community coming together. For instances, my wife Lisa Gottlieb and I could not have dreamed that starting a small, locally-sourced breakfast in our home could wind up serving 4000 meals in a year and would raise $50,000 to support new and existing farmers. We have watched a community form and have measured the impact on the food system. We did it by starting where we were and imagining where we wanted to end up. And seeing this transformation has changed our lives.
Each of us can take little steps to effect this change and it will take many of us if we are to reap the ultimate benefits. Other communities that have taken these steps, like Boulder County, Colorado are reaping rewards in the ability to shape their own landscape.
Can you trace where your money goes from a day of your food purchases? Can you imagine eating 2 meals a week that support your local economy? I hope that you too find that the answers lead to something interesting and fun.