01 December 2007


The holiday season is, whether we like it or not, concerned with food. Food is present at most festive events, publicized in every other advertisement and specialized to fit the holiday mood. Each culture has its own way of interpreting food into their holiday traditions.

Though food by itself is not enough in the context of the clichéd holiday cheer. Is it the crumb of a particularly delicate holiday cookie that imparts the unmistakable glow surrounding the moment of pleasure? Or is it the atmosphere in which it was enjoyed that we glean our sensory memories from? No matter what holiday or celebration one takes part in, there is a community gathering involved. Whether lively conversation rings through the hall or calm reflection hangs in the air, the images have at their origin something decidedly universal: family, unity, kinship.

There is a point to this statement that has to do with something not confined to the approaching winter months. It also has to do with food and sharing, with finding common ground and fostering dialogue. At its most elemental, it is concerned with communication. I am referring to the modern dilemma of where our food comes from and where our food should come from: where ones ‘good life’ may end another’s only way of life. I feel it is necessary to point out this difficulty given my previous discussion of local farms in the United States. Has the ‘localvore’ been pitted against the global marketplace do-gooder? With ethics and politics now extended into the realm of cuisine, sitting down to a meal can become a statement in and of itself. So, how would one define a ‘good meal?’

I previously wrote about one model of a ‘good life.’ In visiting Sea Breeze Farm, I was lucky enough to not only sample a product made in close proximity to where I live, but to experience the land and the process itself that go into making it. This (paradoxically luxurious) ability to eat locally has turned into a movement. In fact, the act has become such a desire in the United States that the New Oxford American Dictionary chose the word “locavore” as their 2007 word of the year. The Oxford University Press Blog explains: “The ‘locavore’ movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.” The blog names the creators of the movement, four women from San Francisco, who “proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius.” This, of course, means forgetting about cravings that call for out-of-season fare. Eating locally also means eating with the seasons.

Though, there is another side to this admired way-of-eating. Choosing to support local farmers means choosing not to support farmers in underdeveloped countries such as Africa. William G. Moseley, an associate professor of geology at a college in Minnesota, recently wrote an article discussing the consequences of the ‘locavore’ movement on farmers in these countries dependent on the agricultural export business. He explains that most farms in Africa use organic methods to grow “local food stuffs” sold in the United States, even though this fact isn’t employed as a promotional device. He proposes that the global marketplace itself is in need of alteration, mentioning African control of “nascent industries” and World Trade Organization “set and enforced rules about basic working conditions and environmental standards” as alternatives to agricultural export.

Here is where the real communication is called for. Here is where, perhaps through the optic of the current holiday season, the common grounds for discussion must be found. One of the most pressing issues of today’s world (and indeed, it has always been a pressing issue) is how to best relate to the other, and in doing so begin to bring about the social change that is needed in the fight against such things as poverty. Food and the environment are intrinsically linked. We are beginning to realize that the environment and how we eat is more connected to those abroad, globally, in third world countries and struggling farmers than first meets the eye. More generally, the environment will and does affect us all – one of the few truly universal problems for which the outcome is the same for all of us. No one has more control over what the weather will do than the other, no matter what level of ‘world’ they live in.

Below are links to the article by Moseley and the blog of Oxford University Press.

"Change Global Marketplace Rules"

Word of the Year

I have also provided a link for the locavore movement’s website. A simple google search will yield various local chapters, though they do not yet exist in every state. Also, Oxfam America, a non-governmental organization fighting poverty and injustice, is about to release their climate change campaign and has information regarding poverty and the environment.

Oxfam America

04 November 2007

Good Life

There is nothing like a late spring afternoon, high in the hills just outside of Grenoble, to get a girl thinking. Amid cows mulling freely in the background and the Alps beckoning with a magisterial silence, I listened to a tale of a man who dedicated his life to things that are no longer done. My French professor, Victor, described his acquaintance, George, who has a farm on Vashon Island in Washington. His Mecca is based on some of the farming concepts still thriving in France. After having six months to explore every market inside Grenoble (and in some cases, beyond the city) I had become fascinated with the lifestyle of small family farms.

I wrote previously of the search for ‘good food.’ In visiting a farm, I sought to confirm my idea that ‘good food’ begins with the very process of its growing – the seed, the soil and the hands that sew. What I found was a substantiation of a philosophy and way-of-things that I have long thought to be true. In caring what we put in our mouths, and in understanding where it came from -- the process of cultivation – perhaps an appreciation will be developed. An appreciation, then, not just for that from which our bodies are nourished, but for the life that is necessary to sustain the planet, thus, us. Not only will ‘good food’ be present, ‘good life’ will be found.

‘Good life’ is perhaps even trickier to define than ‘good food,’ though upon visiting Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island, I may attempt to define one version of it.

Have you ever taken the ferry to Vashon Island? If you have been to Vashon, then chances are you have taken the ferry, as there are no bridges or roads connecting the island to the mainland. If each experience is only as important as the journey, then it would have been hard to have an awful occasion on Saturday, when I made the voyage from city to farmland. Accompanied by three faithful friends, we embarked upon an innocent adventure to a faraway mindset on a nearby island. One that is alive and laughing and calm. Where the green and the blue are holding hands still, where the soil nourishes and the hands sooth. Where we found ourselves planted on an afternoon after a foggy Seattle morning turned into a beautiful midday – in the midst of a world where there is human purpose (as in humanity, not profit).

The island is home to many lives and some are available for the roving eye of the visitor to gaze upon. We rested on the wooden bench outside of a local bakery, grazing on some goodies, watching cars and people ebb and flow in the tiny, picturesque intersection surrounded by old, wooden buildings. A gleaming wine shop to our left, where the bottles looked warm, glistening like vintage Christmas ornaments. A modestly grand antique shop with any number of treasures to be found in prints, drawings and obscure books in every language beckoned from up the street. Upon the white fence sat rows and rows of uniquely carved pumpkins – 50 or more – all grinning peacefully at the passerby.

The silence continued when we arrived at the farm. Following the long, unpaved drive to a teetering farmhouse, there were only some goats, pigs, a cow and two rambunctious dogs to greet us. Abiding by the cardboard sign posted upon the glass door of a small outer building where George sells his wares (all on the honor system – there is never anyone to take your cash), we continued through green pastures where chickens softly clucked amongst themselves. Following big, wooden wine barrels as the signs directed us, we began to hear music, laugher and animated voices coming from a tall barn nestled among the trees. The silence of the fading afternoon gave way to vivacity induced only by extreme happiness.

This sensory experience didn’t stop at the ears. In front of us were barrels upon barrels of wine, and behind them lay four large, open vats filled with grapes... and people. This is what one does on Saturday afternoons in October at Sea Breeze Farm: feel the grapes on the soles of your feet, oozing pure juice through the toes and up the ankles. The soft vines adding taste not obscured or eliminated by raw and brutal machinery. A ton of feet creating bottles of wine that will be enjoyed and savored by many tongues. Laughter as it should always be laughed permeated this space where the pressures of the city dropped away, crushed like the grapes under so many purposeful feet.

The cast of characters was diverse: a local politician, children, babies, and neighbors... we even met two women from Oregon on our way out. There were both amateurs (us) and seasoned grape stompers. One man originally from Spain explained his technique: find a spot and stick to it. I was even able to draw George away from his work of refilling the vats with grapes and the glasses with his wine to ask a few questions about his philosophy.

The first words I heard him speak that evening were these: “I specialize in things people don’t do anymore.” Already I knew I had come to the right place. When reminded of this comment George laughed quietly to himself. “That’s what intrigues me – traditional techniques that have been ignored or neglected or succumbed by modern technology.” He relented that, of course, there are often good arguments for using such technology, but at the same time, so much is lost when using it... especially when it comes to food. “The modern strain of food has been to industrialize everything and to take all the passion and flavor and quality out of food (in lieu of) economy, efficiency and consistency, what ever fits the cookie-cutter mold of industrial food production.”

Everything on the farm is done by hand (or foot), from making the cheese to bottling the milk to crushing the grapes. Owing to this little-practiced technique of grape stomping, George explained how he is able to keep the vine on the grapes as their juices are eased out of the skin. Feet are gentle enough not to snap the stems or bruise the grape, so the finished product retains some complexity.

There is quite a paradox of complexity and simplicity on the farm. The jobs never end; there are always new ideas for expansion, such as someday growing grapes on Sea Breeze itself (currently George purchases them from another grower). Though the mindset is decidedly simple. Whether one is crushing grapes, cultivating the land or simply sitting back and looking at what has been accomplished at the end of the day, “its good for the soul.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, George.

Here is the link to the Sea Breeze Farm website. I encourage all living in the Seattle radius (and even beyond) to make the trip to Vashon. I hope it won’t let you down.

Sea Breeze Farm
Sustainable Vashon

I have also included the links to a site on biodynamic farming – a concept quite different than that of mechanized U.S. farming.

Biodynamic Farming

Finally, epicurious, the web home of both Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines, have put together a list of films that explore the various food movements and current food landscapes. They are worth a look.

Gourmet Features Food Films

17 October 2007

Good Food

As you may learn from my profile, I am a student of journalism and of French, the former for which I am beginning this blog. Something, however, that you may not be able to glean from the concise bio is the question that has been plaguing me ever since I returned from France.

Why is it so hard to find good food? I suppose I must here define ‘good food.’

Back in Seattle after 6 months abroad in France is daunting in and of itself for many reasons. One of these is the isolation experienced as a result of living inner city. Even though green space is but few-minutes ride away, there is a palpable lack of the natural. I wasn’t expecting to find an equivalent to from-the-hill-over-there fresh yogurt as in Grenoble, but perhaps from-the-island-over-there eggs would suffice. Though these products do exist in the city, one feels somewhat spoiled to be able to partake in their freshness (and price). There in lies the absurdity. Where, in France, this kind of direct freshness is taken for granted, in the U.S. it is a luxury. Instead, imports from lands as far away as China are taken as quotidian (and standard), while those products from within a radius of fifty miles become luxurious.

One of the advantages of being a student is the opportunity to hear interesting people talk about what they believe in and stand for in an effort to pass on some knowledge to the forthcoming generation. One such woman Carrie Dann, a Shoshone Indian, spoke on campus last week. Now close to 80 years old, Carrie is still very active in her dedication to what she believes is right. These principles extend from treatment of the earth to treatment of the human population. Among Carrie’s many stories, there was one concept in particular that stood out: her culture’s relationship to food.

With voice unwavering, Carrie explained the relationship with food, extending from her deep connection with the earth in general, a concept ingrained in her consciousness since childhood. She remembered one instance in particular, where her mother stood over the stove, preparing the evening meal. Carrie knew that for their family, prayer didn’t come before the meal or after the meal, but remained a constant presence during the preparation of the meal. There existed no concept of “pure” cooking as it does for some people. Clean the vegetables, do not taste the sauce for fear of contaminating the rest of your family, etc. Their food was handled and tasted and appreciated for its effects on the body. She knew that this animal or vegetable had given its life to sustain hers. For Carrie, the greatest sin – the only sin – is to throw food away.

Public consciousness is slowly beginning to catch on to the weird, American, super-market notion of hunting and gathering. The word “organic” has become (for some of us) part of our everyday vocabulary. “Sustainable” and “beyond-organic” are not far behind. Though these words are now found on both large and small scale in most food-selling locales, are the concepts are as widely understood and applied? And if so, then why are more people not reacting to the truths that lie behind some of the products waiting patiently for consumers on the shelves of our grocery stores?

In an effort to better understand the process of farm to table, it is necessary to start from the source: the farm. So, within the next several weeks, I will try to visit at least one “beyond-organic” farm in order to better understand what it means to dedicate ones life to this concept of “the perfect meal,” as Michael Pollan so simply and elegantly states it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Still, what is ‘good food’? I’m afraid the answer is rather idealistic in today’s terms. Vegetables that haven’t been doused with chemical to produce one type of crop en mass; soil that isn’t peppered with unidentified, chemical products to entice plants into air polluted by too many cars and too many starving bodies; and the farmers, who still take some joy in creating life for life at sunrise and sunset. This list could be much longer, but you get the idea. Now for finding a nearby farm that fits a few of these conditions…

Here are links to some websites that are particularly interesting, inspiring and pertinent. Take a look at what others are doing about our dilemma.

Foodie Farm Girl
Slow Food
Chez Panisse Foundation
Eat The Seasons

The upcoming farm bill is also an imperative debate. Any thoughts on how the outcome of this proposal will affect the current food landscape in regard to how America eats? Here is one idea.

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