Author’s Note: This interview is reprinted with the permission of Edible San Luis Obispo.
The check-in table for Pallet to Palate’s “Farm Fresh” Cooking Demonstration is festooned with a bulging array of fresh eggplants, artichokes, zucchini and strawberries. I am told that the produce comes from the Templeton Farmer’s Market, and that I’m welcome to help myself to anything I like. A very good start.
While waiting for the doors to open, I chat with a woman from Atascadero who stumbled upon the event through the pages of EdibleSLO. The concept of “shake the hand that feeds you” struck a chord with her, so she’s giving it a whirl. I munch on display fruit as she talks, acutely aware that I probably have fresh, organic, local strawberry wedged between my teeth.
We sit down to a two-hour, three-course meal demonstrated by Chef Robert Root of The Manse on Marsh. Any chef who leaves the fast-track to serve fresh, local food to elders in assisted living is alright by me, but Chef Robert is young, bright, and passionate to boot. He started Pallet to Palate a few years ago to strengthen the connection between chefs and local farmers, hosting annual public events that inspire, educate, and satiate. By all accounts, P2P has become an overwhelming success, and I’m about to understand why.
We savor a tender cold melon soup from Rocky Canyon Farms fruit as Chef Robert shows how it’s made. A bottle of 2006 Silver Stone Sauvignon Blanc makes more than a few laps around our table, its brilliant, clean acidity the perfect match for the soup as well as our next dish: a fried green tomato and goat cheese salad with roasted walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette. Robert gives a round of shout-outs to the farmers who stand up looking a little overwhelmed by our enthusiastic applause and whoops of delight. They are – deservedly – the rock stars of our afternoon.
Robert moves on to a pork stir fry with colorful veggies. When asked the correct way to chop vegetables, he retorts, “This isn’t Thomas Keller’s kitchen, folks – just hack it up!”
Next come the grass-fed beef sliders (beef from Rancho Tierra Redonda Ranch), bursting with juicy, concentrated flavor. A bottle of 2005 Silver Stone “Keeper” red Rhone blend appears, providing substantial weight to match that of the meat. And just when I think the best dish is behind us, we are presented with a platter of perfectly-roasted summer squash shrouded in Chef Robert’s “house herb mix.” It’s when the pluot tart with crème frâiche arrives that I stop taking notes because, honestly, my attention simply won’t be compromised before this flaky, aromatic little slice of perfection. All I remember is “ooh” and “mmmmm.”
When I return the next day for the Let’s Be Frank symposium, I’m still high from meeting other local foodies and swapping favorite farmers like baseball cards. Thus am I perfectly positioned for a panel discussion with three experts: sustainable food entrepreneur Larry Bain, small-farming pioneer Judith Redmond and renowned American chef, Bradley Ogden.
If yesterday was designed for the pragmatist, today is for the intellectual. Our panelists are well-versed, policy-hounding advocates of sustainability, discussing Americans’ constitutional right to good food in one breath and government over-regulation of family farmers in the next.
“We can’t take the cost of food out of farmers’ hides,” says Larry Bain, who took sustainability to the street with “Let’s Be Frank” hot dogs in San Francisco. “The money has to come from somewhere.” Redmond asserts that sophisticated organizational support is the only answer to insurmountable regulatory barriers. Ogden’s perspective is closer to the kitchen. “As a chef, I don’t shop locally to ‘pave the way.’ I do it because I care.”
The discussion works us up into a frenzy that can only be calmed by – what else? – foot-long hot dogs. “It’s an affordable work of art – my haiku on a bun,” quips Bain. “There are no VIPs in front of a big weenie.”
The last day of P2P is for the conscious gourmet. It’s the SLOcavore Party, offering more delectable goodies from farmers, chefs, and wineries than I know what to do with. There is a layered Labyrinth Pinot Noir, sweet Italian sausages from Charter Oak Meats, berry tarts in cardamom crusts from Two Cooks Catering, shepherd’s pie from Maegan Loring, and – my personal favorite – a roasted beet risotto cake from Catering Unlimited. Or is it the ginger snap ice cream sandwich from Full of Life Flatbread?
After two hours, attendees are shuffling wide-eyed from booth to booth in a local-food-induced stupor. Snagging someone between bites of fruit tart, I ask her impression of this year’s P2P. “It’s the best yet!” she grins, displaying a patchwork of sustainably-farmed strawberry in her teeth.
We should all be so lucky.
Jaime Lewis left a perfectly good career in orchestra management for a year of farming, eating, and drinking in Italy and New Zealand. She is now a freelance food and drink writer in San Luis Obispo. Read about her odyssey at www.jaimeclewis.wordpress.com.
Author’s Note: This interview is reprinted with the permission of Edible San Luis Obispo.
America has spoken. We hereby crown Michael Pollan Lord Protector of Food. Author of uber-bestsellers The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan investigates how Americans’ wacky relationship with food has been shaped – and often controlled – by “nutritionism,” politicians, and the bottom line of agribusiness. I had the opportunity to speak with Pollan in anticipation of his visit to the Central Coast.
JL: Ok, here’s the big, hard question. Is it really every Americans’ right to have access to good food?
MP: Well I don’t know if “rights” is the language I would use. We’re too quick to put the word “right” on things we want. I think it’s really important that people have access to good, healthy food, and there are policies and practices that are getting in the way that need to be changed or defeated.
JL: You encourage your readers to change the food supply chain by voting with their forks. Do you have any suggestions on how to vote with our votes, too?
MP: Voting with your vote is just as important as voting with your fork. Voting with your vote is paying attention to legislative websites and getting involved, receiving alerts from Food & Water Watch or whoever it is – whichever group reflects your take on these things – and weighing-in on these crucial moments in the legislative process. We saw this happen last year with the Farm Bill. Many thousands of people got involved. We didn’t end up with a great farm bill, but we did give them a wake-up call, and there was a new understanding that you can’t make agriculture policy in isolation. You can’t just ignore eaters. It will happen again this fall in the next big fight which is the National School Lunch Program. And on that issue, I would encourage your readers to check out Slow Food to see what they’re up to with the Time For Lunch campaign. I see [Slow Food] taking the lead on this issue in a very positive way.
JL: Wouldn’t it be more effective to synthesize existing organizations to gain the political will and influence to advance the sustainable food agenda?
MP: Well, it’s a complicated agenda and it has a lot of moving parts. I think at different points different issues are really important. Like right now, school lunches. Another coming to the fore this fall is antitrust, a very important issue. We only have three or four giant meat-packers that are packing 80 or 90 percent of our beef, which explains a lot of the difficulty ranchers are having because they have to be price-takers against such powerful entities. So, you can get involved in all of these issues or you can pick the ones you care most about. They’re all pushing in the same direction, I think.
JL: How have the internet, blogs, Facebook, etc. impacted the evolution of our food chain? Is it changing the playing field?
MP: I think it’s had a very positive effect. It’s hard for small, niche farmers to reach their market, but the web makes it possible. I know lots of ranchers who, without the internet, would be spending all their days in a farmer’s market or spending a lot of money on advertising. The beauty of the internet is it lets the person who wants the product find the person who’s selling it without the seller having to do a lot of work. What the internet has done for farmers is cut out the middle men, and that has really been the key to the growth of alternative agriculture. Shortening that distance between producers and consumers is really important to this movement and the web is a fantastic tool for doing that.
JL: What needs to happen for the sustainable food movement to become a significant part of the mainstream?
MP: Well, this movement already is coming into the mainstream. Take a look at the cover story of tomorrow’s TIME magazine. It’s a big cover story on the industrial food system – what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. You could not have imagined that two or three years ago. So, the mainstream will find us, whether we want it to or not. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done in terms of national politics. I think, as is often the case, that the public is far ahead of the politicians. And there is not a national politician who has discovered the power of this issue yet. I guess Michelle Obama comes closest.
JL: Ok, one more thing: if you’re at liberty to tell me, what are you working on right now?
MP: Well, there’s a documentary of Botany of Desire that’s going to be broadcast in October that I’ve been involved with. And then I’m publishing a book of what I call “food rules” in January that’s like a pamphlet of rules to help people navigate this treacherous food landscape a little more easily. It’s kind of based on the ending of In Defense of Food where I laid out a bunch of food rules to help people distinguish real food from edible food-like products. But [this time] there are 60 of them. It will be a very inexpensive book that doctors can give to patients, or parents could give to kids or vice-versa. It’s really for people who don’t want to immerse themselves in nutrition science but want to eat well.
Michael Pollan will present a free public lecture at 11 a.m. on Thursday, October 15 at Cal Poly’s Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center. He will also be the guest speaker at Cal Poly’s Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium fundraiser dinner, “A Taste of the Future,” on Wednesday, October 14. For tickets, call 805.756.5086.
LINKS & RESOURCES
National School Lunch Program: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/
SLOW Food USA: http://www.slowfoodusa.org
Farm Bill information: http://www.usda.gov/farmbill
National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture: http://www.sustainableagriculture.net
Community Alliance with Family Farmers: http://www.caff.org
Food and Water Watch: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org
Kilman, Scott. “Antitrust Enforcers Begin Visiting Farm Belt.” Wall Street Journal. August 8, 2009, p. A3.
Walsh, Bryan. “Getting Real About the High Cost of Cheap Food.” Time. August 21, 2009.