Eating to the Seasons and the ‘Third Plate’: Making a Thinner America

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I saw a statistic last week that the average American consumes something like 170 pounds of refined sugar annually, nearly 50 times more now than we did 100 years ago!   In 1915, the average American consumed 4 pounds of sugar per year, and they were significantly thinner.    You can go to any historic theatre of that time period and see evidence of how much smaller our behinds were!

I think that gets close to the cause of the obesity problem in America, but not to the root.   Because big agri-businesses have modified our produce for size rather than taste, processed foods are being added with more refined sugars and more salts to make up for this loss of flavor.   The advent of refrigeration and air shipping has made us demand to have any type of produce at any time of the year, regardless of growing season, and despite flavor. And, that has made big farms produce for shelf stability over flavor.   We’ll buy the biggest modified strawberries, but do they really taste as good as smaller, more organically grown ones?   Do we really need to have ‘fresh’ strawberries in the dead of winter?

In the days of our grandparents, before refrigeration, they ‘ate to the season.’ You only had strawberries during the early to late spring, and tomatoes during the mid to late summer.   And, you didn’t have absurdly large produce that doesn’t taste near as good as it should or was intended in its naturally occurring, unGMO’d, non-chemically treated form.   What produce was meant to be kept further out in the growing season, was put in root cellars, canned, or pickled for preservation.   Even the pickled stuff was better, done naturally without preservatives so that the natural probiotics stayed.

My grandparents taught me how to eat to the season.   Even though they were city dwellers, they had a connection to farms. They went weekly to the local farmers’ markets to get their food.   My grandfather’s cousins still operated the 1880’s farm their shared English Yeoman grandfather started out in the ‘Kentucky country’.   In the Spring, Grandma would get their strawberries and make the most amazing fresh strawberry shortcake with her homemade baking powder biscuits.     It beats the hell out of the packaged jelly and manufactured lady fingers version with which most are familiar.   They’d get bushels of tomatoes too in the summer, which meant stewed tomatoes, chili and anything else Grandma could put them into.   But she’d have so many she’d ‘put them up’, which meant she’d stew and freeze them for winter use.

When the produce wasn’t available they wouldn’t eat it so that when their season came up, it was something to look forward to and savor.   Americans probably wasted less produce too, when they ate to the season like this.

A friend of mine grew the spiciest arugala this year that I’ve ever tasted.   Arugala was meant to have a spicy kick – otherwise, we’d just eat iceburg lettuce.   Why is it that you can’t buy this type of arugala in the stores?   Because it’s been treated and grown for yield, not flavor.   Jim grew his in his backyard,  with nothing but soil and water – and no chemicals – the most high end organic arugala.

It has long been known that Posey county cantaloupes in southern Indiana are the best tasting in the country.   This is because of the loamy soil they’re grown in. They are one of two varieties of American cantaloupes – Eastern and Western.   The Western cantaloupes, however, are the ones you see in the supermarkets.   They are small to medium size, and have a green rind with pale netting.   They are grown for shipping over flavor and come from California and Mexico year-round. The Eastern melons are larger, plumper, softer and sweater. But they don’t ship as well and ar grown only in warm summer months in the Midwest.   So they only come in local farm markets and roadside stands until September, but they have the best flavor of any American melon.

When it came to meat, pork was only eaten in the colder months. Even goetta, a local pork-based grain sausage, was eaten only from Fall through Winter. It was never available in the summer months.     I am, however, happy that refrigeration made goetta a year round staple, but I digress.

So why is the Farm-to-table movement trending as a hot topic in food?   It’s a healthy alternative to the sugar-and salt-laden processed convenience foods we typically eat. And, it’s the way our skinnier and healthier ancestors ate, and the way our bodies were meant to be fed.  But the growth of the movement is not easy, because we’ve not set up the economic model to be supportive of small local organic farmers.

Go to any farmer’s market and ask any of the local farmers if they’ve been asked to breed or develop to flavor.   They’ll probably laugh at you.     Most producers grow to size and yield, never to taste.    And that’s because that’s where the money flows.   If we come up with innovative ways to support the more flavorful and healthful versions, now we’re on to something life changing.

Dan Berber, of New York’s Blue Hill, has been passionately and relentlessly trying to set up the economic model to support the Farm-to-Table movement for which he has been credited for starting in America.   He has developed whole farm cooking, for example to support good heirloom emmer wheat. In order to grow this type of wheat a New York Farmer, Klaas Martens, must grow mustard greens, beans, millet, and rye to prepare the soil for wheat. These crop rotators were mostly put into bag feed for animals or even discarded, and he just made more than break even to produce this wonderful wheat. So Barber changed his cooking to integrate the crop rotators to support the entire system that produced this wheat that he wanted. This mindset is truly what the sustainable farm-to table movement is about. It’s not just about picking hyper-local organic farmed products, it’s about creating a culture and an economy of eating to support the entire system. Barber calls this the ‘third plate.’

With the rise of craft breweries, as we’re seeing in Ohio, they could sustain the use of these formerly throw away barleys farmers like Martens are growing as rotators just to prepare the soil for the heirloom wheat.   And everybody wins.   The malter and brewers now has a local source of barley which he hasn’t had before, the brewer uses a local product, and even their spent grains can be used by local livestock farmers are feed. It’s a ‘soil-to-snout’ economy.

This shared model has built some historic products we’re familiar with.   The parmesan cheese market in Italy produced an excess of throw away whey. This was then fed to the pigs in the region, creating fatter, more tastier pigs that resulted in Proscuitto di Parma.   When French peasants wondered what to do with tough and inedible meat of roosters and old hens, they created the dish Coq au vain, which broke down the tough proteins by braising them slowly in red wine, another regional product.

Local chef Todd Kelley of Orchids at the Palm Court follows this model. Named American Culinary Institute’s Chef of the year, Todd sets up relationships with local farms to sustain healthy, organic products.  He’s even started a rooftop urban garden for their herbs and microgreens. Great news is that Kelley is part of a newly formed Ohio River Valley Local Chef’s Collaborative. I have high hopes that they can band together to take this idea of sustainable Farm-to-Table to help form an economy that supports our local organic farmers.

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