If you catch Chef Tanya deep in thought, she’ll likely confess she was thinking through her next menu. If you ask her her plans, she’ll say that her favorite radishes should be coming or, if you confess an affinity for lamb, her face will light up because she knows just the farmer to contact. Occasionally she’ll page through well-worn cookbooks to garner extra inspiration. I love these conversations because it gives me insight into her deep knowledge of both food and farmers.
Let it shine
I’m continually impressed by Chef Tanya’s ability to make local food and seasonal cooking accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. The dishes we make in our learning kitchen are deceptively simple, emphasizing quality of the ingredients over fancy technique. Under her patient tutelage, they coax together frittatas golden with pastured eggs and caramelized onions, crisp coleslaw of crunchy Nappa cabbage from the South Farm, or a simple bruschetta from vine-ripened tomatoes. These meals let the produce and the budding chefs with their newly acquired knife skills shine.
As much as I value Tanya’s way with novices, I also look forward to the few times a year that she really gets to show up and show out in the kitchen. One of those showcase times of year is our annual board of directors meeting in June. Even after two years of working side by side with Tanya and watching the gorgeous dishes she elicits from beginner cooks, I’m still awed by the meals she gifts us: a trio of salads that turn your least favorite vegetables (beets, kohlrabi, cabbage) into delicate gems, perfectly cooked lamb chops with a miraculous addition of a local lavender in the crust, and a simple berry cobbler so good I had to stop mid-agenda item to collect myself.
Find the time, make excuses, and get to the good work of living
I share this story in part to brag on Chef Tanya because she’ll never brag on herself, and I’m awfully proud of the work we do together. The larger point, however, is to celebrate the joy and beauty that come from knowing your craft and knowing a place. The meal we enjoyed was as much a product of Tanya’s years of studying in the kitchen as her years of walking our farmers markets and working directly with farmers. I should also add a sprinkle of the deep Kentucky roots that speak through her grandma’s tomato catchup and jars of jewel-like watermelon pickle that is better described as candy.
As we enter the height of summer, I hope you find the time and make excuses to develop your own art of local eating, whether that’s a sit-down meal with loved ones or sprinkling salt over a perfect tomato that drips into the sink while you devour it. Dig through your family’s cookbook collection to resurrect the recipes on the most battered pages, or ask a farmer their favorite way to eat something they’ve grown. The more we explore our local food systems, the more excuses we have to come together as a community and cultivate a more profound knowledge of the place we call home. Now go get busy exploring at the market, in the kitchen, or at your neighbor’s table, and I’ll expect a full report from you all at the end of summer!
Thanks to my far-flung friends, summer means a string of weddings that provide the perfect excuse to high-tail it out of town for a long weekend, and an opportunity to step out of my day-to-day perspective. Which is how I ended up in Nebraska for the first time this Memorial Day weekend and was reminded of how food plays a vital role in the enigmatic nature of what makes a place home.
The day after the wedding a group of us ventured an hour outside of Omaha, down a gravel road, past a church and two abandoned buildings to the Loma Tavern. We had to park well down the road lined with two-tone farm trucks, and a small crowd of people gathered outside the tavern. As our feet we crunched along the gravel I overhead a woman walking back to her car comment to her well-dressed friend “we should have skipped the winery and come straight here.” She clearly wasn’t from Loma, and I was excited to see what awaited us.
Squeezing inside we found the full tavern cheek to elbow with people from all age brackets sharing tables and cold drinks. Clustered at the back wall were a tuba player, a tattooed man behind a small drum kit, and a teenage girl cranking away on the accordion. Despite the close quarters, a middle-aged couple bounced back and forth to the polka music, and other folks clapped along. We managed to belly-up to the counter and caught the eye of a white-haired woman in a white dress with a white apron. She asked how many suppers we wanted (not what kind) and waved us to find a seat wherever we could.
Our plates arrived minutes later: duck thighs roasted golden with caraway seeds, a pile of potato dumplings hidden under an even bigger pile of slightly sweetened sauerkraut, a helping of sweet corn and a fluffy dinner roll perched on top. Our local guide, Anthony, announced that this was exactly the Sunday supper his Czech grandmother used to make. My belly full of sauerkraut and ears full of “The Saddle Horse Polka” I simultaneously felt at completely home, and that I’d never been anywhere quite like Loma. It was then I noticed the hand-made sign behind the tuba player: “LOMA MY SECOND HOMA.”
Back in Lexington, I’ve been thinking about how the work of fostering local food systems can feel overwhelming; the global food system is so vast, the trends towards convenience and homogenized food cultures so strong. Similarly, it can be challenging to communicate the importance of local food systems when we’re so used to talking about food’s value primarily in terms of cheapness. Unlike clear accounting indicators of ‘gross margin’ or ‘net profit,’ the values of local food are intertwined with each other in particular histories, cultures, and landscapes.
I can’t express my experience at the Loma Taproom to you all with a number, but I hope the experience resonates with your own memories of home. For me, it was my favorite diner in the small town I grew up in that served simple meals made from scratch like chicken and dumplings and apple pie with a crust so flaky I’d sometimes skip class on Wednesdays just to be sure I got a slice. (To any of my current students, that is not an excused absence!) They closed when the grandmother running the kitchen finally retired. There’s a national fast-food chain where it used to stand, and that town feels a little less like home every time I pass through.
The Loma Taprooms of the world are kept afloat not by tourists like me, but by the grace of the farmers and other rural folks down the road who stop in for lunch or a cold drink as often as they can. Those same farmers probably get their pick-ups worked on at the garage in town, which may, in turn, keep the drummer of the polka band employed. Making the extra efforts to track down their potatoes for Sunday supper not only keeps those farmers on the land but also our traditions vital and that sense of ‘home’ alive.
This month over at The Food Connection we’re inaugurating an award in honor of one of my favorite farmers of all time (which is really saying something), Bill Best. This post (posted first at my ‘From the Director’ blog) sums up my thinking on the value of folks like Bill to our community.
You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems
You might miss Bill in a crowd. He has a soft voice with a gentle Appalachian drawl. He asks thoughtful questions and humbly offers advice or knowledge when invited. If you’re not paying attention, you may also miss the invaluable role he’s played in preserving the genetic heritage and agricultural history of Central Appalachia. The stories he tells about seed-saving are as much about the gardeners and families who have entrusted him with their heirlooms as they are about his work preserving them. Back home we would describe him as a “good neighbor.” Some people in the sustainable agriculture community would likely call him a hero.
All heroes need an origin story. Bill Best refused to accept that he would never again enjoy the tender-skinned greasy beans that he grew up alongside in his grandmother’s garden. And so, he got to work; he turned the soil, tended his fields, and his farmstead became a sanctuary for the agricultural heritage of mountain communities and the plants they have loved. A precious as gold and twice as rare, families have entrusted Bill with their history, held closely inside those smooth and speckled seed casings.
We don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds
That said, I would never call Bill Best a hero. To me, Bill is a steward, which I would argue is a more noble title for those of us who strive to care for our food system. Our Jack saved the beanstalk from the giant not for financial gain or glory, but to ensure the cultural survival and self-reliance of his community. Unlike the bravado of heroism, stewardship is the slow work of the seasons; found in the practical labors of caring for each other and the land that sustains us.
The mark a steward leaves is not an indelible carving of the earth (or the blasting of one’s visage into the mountainside). Unfortunately, our nation’s farming systems have also gone this way: bulldozed into uniformity by captains of industry. Absent stewardship, our food systems become unmoored, changing with the winds of fashion or price swings at the board of trade.
Even in the so-called ‘good food’ community, we fall prey to the cult of celebrity. We can all name the half dozen “super-star” farmers, chefs or authors with the silver bullet model for solving sustainable agriculture or urban food insecurity. You can pay big bucks to hear them speak, tour their farms and facilities, and buy their latest book to learn all the answers. But can they describe the poetic twining of a runner bean around its trellis? Do they carry the story of that bean close to their heart? I would offer that to heal our food systems we don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds.
The gentle legacy of stewardship
The legacy of a steward is found in a gentler path, fit for the mountains Bill calls home; carried in song and verse, passed hand to hand, mended and endlessly re-woven. Grounded in an intimate knowledge of land and place, our food and farm stewards build our self-reliance while simultaneously showing us our deep interconnection. They give generously of their knowledge and skill, safe in the understanding that our true wealth and joy can only multiply as they are shared.
As Bill once told me: “You grow tomatoes for money, and beans for love.” I love this quote because it doesn’t diminish the tomato or the bean, or the farmer that grows them, and embraces the simple truths of a what it takes to build a livelihood. In Bill’s words, I hear echoes of the old protest songs calling for Bread and Roses; our labors should bring us not only prosperity but also dignity and joy.
We don’t come to sustainable food systems for a quick buck, but for the long work of learning how to abide together and live from the earth as well as possible. Many of us owe Bill a debt of gratitude. He shared his seeds and wisdom with me in my early days of bean enthusiasm, and I am not alone in my tender affection and deep admiration for this farmer with his coveralls and leather britches. But how do you honor someone whose humility and generosity defines their legacy? I offer that we treat his gifts to us with the same stewardship he has practiced. We tend to the heirlooms of our past by preparing them for brighter futures. We get to work.
At the heart of our work at The Food Connection is a recognition of the responsibility of the University to contribute to the health of our commonwealth’s food system: its farmers, eaters, and landscape. Tying together all our efforts is the goal of translating of our highest ideals of what ‘good farming’ and ‘good eating’ should be into the mundane but essential practices of everyday life.
Along these lines, feminist scholars tell us that to acknowledge responsibility for something is to simultaneously recognize an obligation to care. They further argue that despite the way we typically evoke the word, care is not simply a mental state or a character trait. Sure, we say that “I care about such-and-such,” but care happens through action, not thoughts. To quote Jane Toronto, care is “the concern of living, active humans engaged in the processes of everyday living.” Not simply the fulfillment of desire, but, in the words of Berniece Fisher, an “activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.”
Lumped within the broad feel of healthcare, in neurogastronomy the rational, calculating mind meets the soft, feeling, and remembering body (which Mol refers to as our “fleshy, fragile, mortal bodies”). For the remainder of my remarks, I will draw our attention to the delicate and productive tension between those two worlds of knowing, and suggest that it is through embracing this tension between analysis and attunement that neurogastronomy’s practice of care emerges. I’ll conclude with the suggestion that networks of care that tie us all together as a human community, and in particular the work of caring for our food system.
“So that we can live as well as possible”
The central role of eating to our sense of self is underscored by the experiences of those who have lost their sense of taste. In a thoughtful memoir about his experience of throat cancer, David Wong Louie describes his journey from a self-described gourmand to a non-eater and the profound changes that happened to not only his body but his experience of himself and the world: “With the G-tube, I did not eat — I fed the tube….Goose in Hong Kong is a meal, not a feeding; the table is laid with utensils, not a syringe; one dines, not feeds.”
Describing his post-cancer life as one who does not dine, he goes on to say “I can’t relate to the old, eater version of me. I don’t remember how it feels to be in the presence of food and crave it, want to own it, or how it feels to know its pleasure and anticipate having that pleasure again. I can’t relate to that kind of beauty anymore.” In David’s experience, we see the loss of an essential way of knowing the world (eating, tasting), but also a way of relating to others and himself. Not only has he lost the ability to connect to the particular pleasure and beauty of food, but as he says in this poignant revelation, “My wife and I seemed to talk differently when there was food between us.”
Translating science into care
Considering care in the context of health, Adriene Mol states succinctly that all healthcare providers must reckon with: “How to live well, what to die from, and how, thus, to shape good care.” There is no simple path to those answers. Many of us are intimately familiar with the feelings of helplessness and inadequacy of a caregiver unable to bring solace or comfort to their loved one. We witness (or experience) the pain and frustrations of inhabiting an ill body – where food and feeding may become yet another regimen to endure, or, conversely the only avenue of power/control left (what to eat, how much, when). Struggling to perform a new self who we are told we must become –a ‘thin’ person, a ‘healthy’ eater while simultaneously trying to hold on to who we were before the prognosis; a life that we have lived around a dinner table.
The science of assays and diagnostics are invaluable of course; as are the gastriques and molecular manipulations and other culinary artistry. These are the tools through which knowledge advances, by which we discover and delight in the workings of the body’s mechanisms and processes. What this science reveals is just how complex our primary senses are, and how contingent our experience of taste is. Which is to say that there is another kind of high science: the translation of knowledge into practice. The transforming nutritional guidelines and ingredients into meals, or knowledge into healing.
Neurogastronomy in action
At the neurogastronomy challenge, we’ll see medical professionals and chefs turn their attention not to the abstract realm of diagnosis or composition, but to the experience of our honored guest judges who are people living with diabetes.
The challenge starts with the deceptively simple question of: “What do you have a taste for?” Listen closely to the question and you realize that we have taste; we hold it in our bodies, in our memories. Our challenge participants will explore how the taste of a thing (a tomato, a lollipop, a slice of bread) is realized in the unique context of eaters and their bodies. What the science of Nuerograstronomy can offer is a means to understand the unique needs and tastes of the eating person, and then offer the caring practices that can attend to them and their body.
Where the body deviates, we can use culinary ancillaries or peripheral neurological means to access satisfaction and pleasure. These techniques and technologies can help us craft meals that adapt to the needs of the ailing/healing body. Understanding dysgeusia, identifying the connections between smell and taste (in all its complexity), manipulating ingredients to elicit flavors, textures, and memories… all in the service of care.
We’re all connected, just like our food system
What an ethics of care teaches is the beautiful and terrifying fact of our fundamental interdependence – we need each other. We as scientists and chefs, we as friends, we as fragile bodies, are bound up in intersecting assemblages of care. Those of us with privilege or power have the luxury to ignore our dependence on the caring labor of others, but crisis (and especially a crisis of the body) will bring our vulnerability into stark relief. As Maya Angelou wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.”
Our society tends to fixate on the fantasy of universal and unassailable solutions. The perfect meal. The ultimate cure. What to prescribe a prototypical patient unit. Student unit is also applicable here. Farm unit as well. But care is not an ideal definable in general terms – it is a doing, a way of relating continuously refined in its practice. There is no one-and-done in care. It requires humility and good humor, skills and attentiveness.
Because in the end, it is the very uniqueness of loss, the specificity of grief, the scarcity of time that reminds us of the importance of discovering and re-discovering new ways to care for each other so that we might all live as well as possible together.
Angelou, Maya. 1975. “Alone” in Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. New York: Random House.
Fisher, Bernice and Joan Toronto. 1991. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Care” in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s lives. Edited by E. Abel and Margaret Nelson. Albany: University of New York Press.
Mol, Annemarie. 2010. “Care and its Values.” in Care in practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms. Edited by A. Mol, J. Pols and I. Moser. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
Mol, Annemarie. 2008. The Logic of Care: Health and the problem of patient choice. New York: Routledge.
Tronto, J. C. 1993. Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. New York: Routledge.
Food systems people know that even though winter is off-season on the farm it’s conference season in the meeting room. I arrived in Savannah for the Southeastern Regional Fruit and Vegetable Growers (SERFVG… best/worst acronym ever) conference last week hoping for a brief break from my normal focus on local food ‘stuff’ with a vacation into the ever-so-riveting world of on-farm food safety education. Little did I know what awaited me.
Settling into my hotel room I was greeted by this seemingly innocuous room service menu. Seeing as I hadn’t eaten since Kentucky, I indulged with an order of quinoa-arugula-something-or-other salad AND a side of crinkle cut fries because YOLO. Only after closing the menu did I see their claim to ‘local ingredients,’ which sparked a litany of questions on my part. With no indication on the menu as to the provenance of anything, I was skeptical at best. Perhaps the good farmers of Georgia have miraculously started to grow Quinoa for foodie travelers like me… but I seriously doubt it. What’s more, as someone who spends a significant chunk of her professional life and mental bandwidth thinking about local food systems, this sort of ‘local-washing’ is especially vexing.
Like it’s cousin green-washing, local-washing emerged as a buzz-word around 2009 and applies to when a business makes claims about the ‘localness’ of their products when in fact they are part of the same global corporations and/or supply chains that most of our food comes from. Food purveyors (grocers, restaurants, food manufacturers) claim to offer local food with no clear communication about what food on the menu is local, or how local is defined, or what farms or sources that food comes from. The word ‘local’ serves as an empty placeholder for you, the customer, to insert all your positive assumptions about the food on offer’s freshness, healthfulness, or support of family farmers without any proof. Which is how I ended up with out-of-season tomatoes in my quinoa salad while at the same time a local farmer is left out in the rain.
Sharing my low-key local food outrage with some Georgia farmers the following evening one of them joked that I should add the title “Chief Overthinking Officer” to my business card. He wasn’t wrong, but I’m going to take it as a badge of honor. What we think and say about our world matters, and I’m lucky to be able to spend a lot of time thinking about these things. Now seems like a good time to be sharing more of those thoughts.
The ‘good food’ movement has been critiqued for its style over substance approach. It’s easy to be co-opted or local-washed in the absence of clear communication about how and why the meaning of ‘local food’ should matter to the average American; from what they put on their plates to what advocate for at work or in the voting booth.
My hope with this blog is to provide a substance AND style approach to food systems scholarship. As this blog evolves I hope to provide thoughtful reflection on both emerging issues and long-standing debates within the contemporary food movement. While I tend to approach things from a farm-first perspective, I’m also a social scientist through-and-through so culture, power, and all the other fun dimensions of our socio-political world will also play a part.
This is definitely an experiment in public-scholarship. I value your feedback, questions, or complaints. What questions need asking or answering? Whose perspectives aren’t being considered? How do we better understand each other as we work to build food systems that respect and nourish the people, land, and history of a place? As my hero once said… Let’s go exploring.