The Long & Local of it
On a rainy day in February, with sights set on Shire Farms (an easy 45-minute drive in my 2007 Honda Pilot) I embarked on the last stop of my “buy local, eat local” journey. As the scenery turned from shopping centers to small farms, I thought about the preceding weeks – well, months and years, I suppose – that had brought me so eagerly to the Tate family’s farm.
Earlier in the month, I was encouraged – for better or for worse – to sign up for The 1st Annual Peninsula Chili Cook Off, and to create a chili that was “true to my values and ideologies as a chef.” I figured I had several options: 1. Gluten-free chili (too easy,) 2. French chili (too fancy,) or 3. 100% locally sourced chili (brilliant!) Thus, began my quest. I drove up and down the Peninsula, went into every organic store in Norfolk, read every label, google mapped addresses on produce labels, cold-called farmers, texted “farmers” purporting to sell sweet potatoes on Craigslist (yes, I resorted to Craigslist; don’t judge) asked every human I encountered (most of whom discernably thought I was crazy; again, don’t judge) if they “happened to be one of the few who has kept the art of canning alive, and if they did, had they canned any of last summer’s tomatoes, and would they sell them to me?” (There were no takers, by the way. No one I met cans anymore, but, somehow everyone has a memory – or two – of their grandmother sanitizing jars, stewing ripe peaches with sugar and maybe a pinch of ginger) … The long-of-the-short-of-it: I STRUGGLED!
Living for 3 years in France, I had grown accustomed to eating in season; one would never, for example, eat watermelon while wearing a winter hat and gloves. Just as one would never eat caviar d’aubergine (a delicious filling or topping made quite simply with eggplants, a generous amount of olive oil and garlic) at an autumn picnic in the park. First, you wouldn’t be able to find the ingredients to make it. Second, if you did, the eggplant would be from some faraway place and have the distinct look of smog and suspicion on it. Eating with the seasons is by no means a new concept; ask any of your (grand)mothers and I guarantee they never ate rhubarb pie in February. (“But it would look sooo cute and pink all braided into a heart-shaped Valentine’s Day tart!” Non et non.)
I also had grown accustomed to knowing where my food came from; all produce and meats in France are clearly labeled. Why wouldn’t they be? For every terroir in France is the proud producer of any number of unique and/or high quality ingredients with a story and the true history to back the story up. So, one could choose to buy those strawberries from Spain, that are admittedly cheaper; however, being clucked at by une femme d’une certain âge at the local market while a vendor smoothly inclines your gaze towards the two French varieties that are just now in season, while explaining their unique taste profiles (albeit smaller and less appealing to my children,) you can’t help but get swept away with the sheer locality and proximity of their naissance.
And they do taste better.
So, for the chili cook-off, I rallied what ingredients I could find – many from small local producers with great products like Virginia Chutney and small family farms like Wood’s Orchards – donned my very-most-creative chef’s hat, and in the end, out of 18 contenders my 85% locally sourced (15% regionally sourced) chili came in 2nd place – not too bad.
To be fair, it is winter and produce is, naturally, limited. To be unfair, why are our grocery stores stocked full of out-of-season, inedible produce? To be honest, why do I not know my beef farmer or chicken farmer and why, in the world, can I not find any decent lamb?!
Lamb. The fragrant flower of my weeks-long (again, maybe month-long or year-long, could I go so far as to say life-long?) quest that brings us back to my 2007 Honda Pilot five minutes out from Shire Farms. When I arrived at the farm, I was immediately struck by the sounds – geese, chickens, guinea hens all chatting and gossiping at once. I was warmly greeted by the family’s eldest daughter, Grace, a mother herself, who has moved back to the area with her husband to help run the family farm. I was led on a lovely tour of their 4-acre spread, with earth-friendly facilities, where they humanely raise duck, chickens, geese, turkey, rabbits and LAMB. We spent the next several hours out of the chilly rain drinking tea over thoughts of grass-fed ruminants, Americans’ diets, health & nutrition, other local farmers working hard to provide sustainably, naturally and locally grown meat and produce, family farms and caring about where our food comes from, and what happened to the local food movement.
I left with a giant cooler of lamb and duck, a dozen duck eggs and a yellow sticky note filled with other farmers like Grace and her mom, Gina, who are keeping the local food movement going. Farmers young and old who are farming responsibly and ethically, with stories and a history of their own to tell. Hard working people willing to live simply to provide high quality products. Most importantly, I left Shire Farms with a giant slice of what I thought only existed in France.
- For local producers near you check out: www.localharvest.org or google online farmers’ markets (a unique idea that has shown some success.)
- For Shire Farms check out: www.ShireFarmsVA.com
- Recommended farms (aka yellow sticky-note farms) include: Full Quiver Farm in Suffolk, Broken Arrows Farm in Zuni, Parker Family Farm in Gloucester, Avery’s Branch Farm in Amelia and Quail-Cote Farm, a traditional farm whose proprietor had a Saul/Paul moment, significantly downsized and alongside his wife spent 6 years getting his farm organically certified.
Chef Libby Oroza