By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director
A first step towards a sustainable cuisine is to acknowledge that we don’t have one now. The current source of our food is both everywhere and nowhere – everywhere because affluent consumers can buy food from anywhere in the world, and nowhere because there is no personal connection that traces the food back to a particular farmer’s field.
The most memorable meals of my life are intimately connected to family and friends, to foods that came from our gardens or nearby farms, to special events in our lives. The first peas of the year are one treat; so is a strawberry-rhubarb pie from Bonnie’s strawberries, or our annual family gathering at Thanksgiving, with each bringing his or her specialties. These relationships between food and eater, carried back to the farm, that could form the basis of a truly sustainable cuisine. If widely acted upon, they would challenge the very basis of our current agricultural economy.
We are beginning to see, in small ways, that individual decisions to make these connections are having an impact. I can speak most directly about the changes in Maine. Thirty years ago, most farmers produced bulk foods for wholesale markets. Rural communities usually had a farm stand or two; there were two barely-surviving farmers’ markets in the state. Now nearly every major town has both a farmers’ market and an independent natural food store or cooperative; most leading restaurants seek local foods in season for their menu. Hundreds of Maine farmers now provide organic food to a growing number of citizens.
The idea of producing regionally distinctive foods is also taking hold, with farmstead cheese makers, smoked seafood, and specialty potato varieties. We even have farmers turning the seasons on their head, producing cool season salad greens in unheated greenhouses during the fall, winter and early spring, using far less energy than produce imported from afar. Long-term relationships with customers are the key to survival for many farmers, small and large. The most direct linkages are the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects, where farmers and buyers make commitments to one another ahead of the production season. At that level, where consumers and farmers are interacting and talking, I am optimistic.
Yet we know that those direct connections are far from typical for the American public. Most people eat food every day that comes from a system that works directly against these connections. If you think about the last time you were able to buy a fresh, locally-raised chicken, the ubiquitous presence of national brands, and a distribution system based on instant availability of every type of food from any place in the world, you will start to see the scope of the issues in front of us. At the heart of the problem is the separation of farmer from consumer, both by geography and by a series of large marketing organizations.
I’d like to propose two strategies that can help to rebuild connections between the person eating the food and the person growing the food. The first is based on thinking about ‘face, place and taste’ as explicit components of a sustainable cuisine. The Japanese have a word for it, ‘seikatsu,’ meaning “food with a face.”
My favorite example of this comes from my great-uncle Arthur, who has been farming on the family homestead his whole life, and just now is slowing down as he moves through his eighties. He made his living selling feeder pigs, but recently sold all but one, left behind because his brother and sister needed a place to take their slops. He also sold his sheep, but he still keeps beef cows, chickens, and a big garden. Every time you visit you have a choice between something fresh from the garden, or something Arthur has put up in the kitchen. Recently my Uncle Bob passed on samples of Arthur’s pickles, along with the recipes. Arthur couldn’t remember who’d given him the recipe, so he named it after the donor’s hometown, and now “Wytopitlock Man Salt Pickles” has entered our family’s repertoire, and diet. It has all the elements of sustainable cuisine: a face (actually several, besides my own family’s: Uncle Bob, Great-uncle Arthur, and the man from Wytopitlock who gave him the recipe); a place (our Three Sisters Farm, the Libby family homestead); and, finally, a distinctive taste. Once you’ve tried Uncle Arthur’s Wytopitlock Man Salt Pickles, you either love them or you hate them, but you certainly remember them.
The second part of the strategy will require us to make this philosophy a part of our buying. We can start modestly here, but the potential is huge. A few years ago I roughly figured the potential impact on the very local economy of Mount Vernon if every household spent a small part of its food bill each week on products from the farms here: milk, meat, eggs, raspberries, vegetables and sweet corn. Now I tell people that if each family in Maine spent $10 per week on local foods, it would create an additional $100 million in business and require three times as much fruit and vegetable production. Even in my small town of Mount Vernon, population 1400, the difference would require a new full-time vegetable farming business.
When we can attach a face, a place, and a taste to our daily meals, and our institutions have evolved to encourage that interaction, then we will be sure we have achieved a truly sustainable cuisine. I think it looks a lot like supper during the gardening season.