Friday, January 11, 2013

Eat Like You Give a Damn

My community, Sandhill Farm, has maintained a core commitment to growing and eating high quality food right from the first of our nearly 39 years together. As such, imagine my amusement when my Seattle friend Marni Rachmiel suggested we rendezvous for breakfast at the Portage Bay Café last November—a place I'd never heard of before—and arrived to find the coffee cups and waitstaff t-shirts festooned with the restaurant's defiant slogan: "Eat Like You Give a Damn." I loved it!

It turns out that this hometown restaurant (it has three locations in the metropolitan area) fiercely promotes local, organic, and seasonal ingredients. It makes an organic farmer from northeast Missouri proud.

Over the course of the decades I've lived at Sandhill it's been a passion of mine to try to develop a local cuisine—dishes that feature what we grow when it's fresh. We've achieved year-round self-sufficiency in tomatoes, so red pasta sauce is always a menu option. But not buying tomatoes means letting go of seeing fresh wedges in the salad bowl from November through June, as we only have canned and dried tomatoes available those months.

We eat parsnips in March and April. We eat fresh strawberries only in June. Butternut squash lasts from first harvest in the fall through to the spring. With care we can make our fresh garlic and potatoes last pretty much all year; it's harder with onions. We extend access to certain vegetables through pickling: cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, beets, and green beans. Other things we regularly dry: leeks, celery, peppers, shiitakes, jerky, and many herbs.

If you are what you eat, it makes sense to be local and organic. Though without as much fanfare (and no t-shirts) Sandhill stands for the same principles as the Portage Bay Café. 

Further, we intentionally try to be conscious of the energy it takes to get our food to the table, and that calculus extends way beyond the propane that fuels our cook stove. It includes the transportation it takes to get the food to the store and then home (if we buy an ingredient rather than grow it), the energy invested in processing the food (if we're not eating it fresh), and the energy invested in storing the food (if it's refrigerated or frozen instead of canned or dried).

In the summer we're able to save propane by extensive use of a solar cooker—essentially an insulated box with reflective sides that focuses the sunshine onto a cooking shelf. On sunny days we can sustain a temperature of 250 degrees, great for slow cooking or reheating things. In the winter we make the wood stove do double duty as a space heater and a cooking surface. By keeping a tea kettle on the wood stove all winter, it takes much less propane to bring the water to a boil for hot drinks. These steps require a bit more forethought, yet add up to considerable savings.

I've wondered for years what world politics would be like if everyone—and I mean everyone—had a garden and was responsible for growing at least some portion of what they ate. Would we be as warlike? Would we be as wasteful? Would we tolerate so many food ingredients with four or more syllables? Would we make so many development choices that destroy farmland? Would Monsanto even have a chance to corner the market on germplasm? I doubt it.

Of course, when you think about it, giving a damn in general is a good idea. Come by for dinner sometime and we can talk it over. 

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