Meet me at the fair

An unexpected treasure showed up in my mail this past month: the “Premium List & General Rules” for submission to the Kentucky State Fair. I had forgotten that last year after a heart-filling day of browsing everything from green beans to hay bales I signed my name on the list for possible future participants. Flipping through the 355 pages of rules governing entries like “New Quilt from Old,” I dreamed of someday having a ribbon winning entry of my own.

I imagine I’m preaching to the Food Connection choir when I confess a long-standing love of county and state fairs. I grew up in a community where at least a third of my classmates were absent from class the week of our county fair because they were showing animals. I’d go for the rides (how on earth did I ever think the ‘zipper’ was a good time?) but find myself lingering in the barns.

I envied the clear purpose and pride of the 4-H kids standing in their stalls. Everyone cleaned up and dressed in their country best, even (and especially) the livestock. Vegetables and home-baked pies lovingly displayed on judging tables, and that unique sense of pride you feel for a stranger when you see a blue ribbon awarded to their efforts.

Hay for the hay burners

A Taste of Place

As an adult, my favorite fairs are still in small counties, mostly because they offer a glimpse into the life of that place and it’s farming community. I’ve watched a family friend compete in a lawn-tractor pull (don’t laugh, it was serious), learned about the ties between pigeon breeding and immigrant communities, and even participated in a cross-cut saw competition (a story for another day).

My favorite entry. Definitely deserved a blue ribbon.

Forget the ludicrous deep-fried butter school of fair food – that’s stuff for city slickers – there are real culinary gems to be found if you know where to look. The first time I ever tasted concord grape pie was from a Mennonite food vendor at a Southern Ohio county fair, and it fundamentally changed my pie world-view. If you’ve ever visited the Bluegrass fair here in Lexington, while the traditional fair trappings are somewhat slim, there is an entire section dedicated Hispanic food vendors and music acts that is an entire fair onto itself. I had a mushroom pupusa there that I still dream about, and for this granddaughter of Polish immigrants, I can never get enough Tuba music.

Showing-Off Together

What I appreciate most about fairs is the opportunity they provide to show-off together. I love that people all across a region put their time in energy into raising or building or crafting something and put it on display to say “I’m proud of this.” The time of the judges and the attention of the fairgoers serves to say “We’re proud of you.”

Next year I’ll make Chef Tanay enter her ketchup

Instead of looking outside of the state or community for excellence or inspiration, a fair reminds us that we can also look to the talent and passion that is everywhere around us. The people showing their goats aren’t out for corporate sponsorship. While it’s unlikely that person who takes home the blue-ribbon for their zucchini bread will end up with a TV network deal, I’d imagine you can find one of their recipes in a church cookbook. It’s enough to be here in this place and celebrate each other.

Year of Kentucky Foodways

Which brings me to our theme for this year at The Food Connection. While in year’s past we’ve partnered with the College of Arts & Sciences “Passport to the World” program, this year we’re going to focus our attention on the past, present and future of Kentucky foodways.

Exploring new local food territory, we’re helping organize the Southeastern Grain Gathering in September which bring together farmers, bakers, brewers, millers, maltsters, and distillers from across the region and the nation to ‘geek-out’ on locally grown grains and their incredible flavors.

If I told you this was whole wheat bread, would you believe me?

We kicked off our culinary programming with our first “Cook with a Farmer” class with the Waterstrat family of Sustainable Harvest Farm, and we look forward to offering more in this series. We’ve also got an exciting schedule of classes on quintessentially Kentucky foods and their local champions; if you’ve never cooked with Sorghum this will be the year you learn!

And as always, our First Friday Breakfasts will highlight inspiring and innovative leaders working in our state’s local food system. Keep your eyes peeled for our newsletters and Facebook announcements to make sure you don’t miss out. It’s an exciting year and a full one. I look forward to seeing old and new faces while celebrating and learning more about this place I’m proud to call him. I hope you’ll join us.

Bill Best Award 2019

The Bill Best Award was established as a way to lift up the stories of people and organizations that might otherwise be taken for granted, but whose efforts are essential to the health and vitality of our state’s farm and food systems. When Sarah Fritschner’s name was put forward as a nominee, a collective light bulb went off: Of course!

I don’t remember how I met Sarah Fritschner. By that I mean I can’t remember when she wasn’t part of my professional life in Kentucky. What I can tell you is I always knew she was a deceptively unassuming force to be reckoned with. For the last decade Sarah has served as a value chain coordinator or someone who works behind and in between the scenes to forge the relationships and connections that allow farmers to get their product all the way from their farm to your table.

Sarah in Field

Before venturing into the value chain weeds, she spent more than 30 years as a journalist and food writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She’s also an author, penning at least six cookbooks, co-authoring a nutrition guide, and continues to write about food and farming for regional publications. At every step of her career, she’s been someone who strives to help her community realize the best in itself. She is a woman who follows her passion and her convictions, and in this, she’s been a great mentor and kindred spirit for many of us passionate about local food systems.

From the Ground Up

In many ways, Sarah built the field of value chain coordination from scratch: there were no footsteps to follow. I imagine she approached that challenge like everything else: she picked up the phone, she visited the farms, she kept on the buyers and checked on the product. She celebrated small victories and didn’t sweat setbacks. Drawing on her roots in journalism, she asks questions that she feels need asking, circles back, follows up and keeps on looking for a path forward. She can be a thorn in your side, usually in the best of ways; urging us to aspire to our highest purpose. Her eye is on the long game, not the short return.

To put it simply, her work has been critical to laying the foundation for the future of local food systems for our Commonwealth. I would venture that in she’s directly or indirectly put hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hands of Kentucky farmers that wouldn’t otherwise be there were she not pushing the envelope. Her advocacy for farm-impact purchasing set the stage for our University’s local purchasing goals, and her tireless efforts to find products and producers that were a good fit for our dining needs helped us succeed.

Aramark Reception

The world of value chain coordination isn’t glamorous. It’s full of hard negotiations and product experimentation, purchase orders, countless miles up  and down the highways, and a lot of “no” in the five years or so it takes to get to “yes.” The gentle irony in this award is that there’s a good chance she’s better known in national circles than in our state. In 2016 she was one of ten national leaders designated by the USDA’s FOODLINC program. She’s been profiled by national publications, and a quote from Sarah in a Southern Foodways Alliance interview beautifully encapsulate her unique combination of tenacity and humility: “Reflecting your community is a way to make your job easier, because you don’t have to come up with that. [With your community] you’re always learning, so whatever you’re giving to the community, you’re getting back at least equally, I think.”

Sage Wisdom

For anyone who’s jumped in head first into a new field, having someone to show you the ropes is invaluable. Rather than feeling exasperated or resentful towards a bunch of up-shots galloping haphazardly into an effort she’s been at for years, Sarah has always been generous with her knowledge, encouraging with her praise, and quick to collaborate and support however she can.  She’s someone I call for both counsel and consolation. She tries to grow the field, not defend her turf.

From Sarah, I’ve learned to take things less personally, which has been an invaluable life lesson. Other wisdom from the Fritschner book of life includes: Show up and do good work. Be both courteous and courageous. Go out of your way, but don’t make yourself miserable in the process. Root for the underdog, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power. Hustle. Know that moving on doesn’t mean giving up. Celebrate the small victories; they’re what sustains you.

Some of the most important figures in your life will be the ones who give you good advice you don’t want to hear. When we’re grappling a frustrating farm-to-campus challenge, my colleague Dr. Ashton Potter Wright who runs Bluegrass Farm to Table will remind me of Sarah’s admonishment that “Anything you try to do that’s worth doing will take at least five years.” We’ll look at each other, sigh in recognition of the wisdom, and get back at it. In fact, that may be Sarah’s most enduring legacy: inspiring us all to get back to the good work of community.