Farm to Table has become a big bullshit buzz phrase over the last half dozen years in the culinary world. I started this piece a while ago and sat on it because I wasn’t sure how to write it without sounding like a pity party or an asshole. I’ve now decided I don’t care if I sound like either of those things. Read on…
Oh the People You Meet
Not too long ago, I had a very brief conversation with a man who tried to tell me that “The foodie movement really started in Napa”. I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Nice try buddy, but New York’s food scene has been killing it for ages.” He looked outraged and exclaimed, “But Chez Panisse!” I kinda rolled my eyes at him and said, “Well that’s a whole ‘nother story.”
My hackles raised because I had lived the farm to table life, and it isn’t all pretty pictures and photo spreads in magazines. I eyed this guy up and down, took in his brand name, designer clothing, and without getting into an in-depth conversation with this guy (whom I did not know), I was able to GUESS a few things about him (judge-y much? YUP!). I am guessing this guy has always lived in a city or suburbs, nowhere near a farm, or farmers, or a rural community of any kind. If he honestly thought Alice Waters invented farm to table cooking, that would be my guess. I am guessing he grew up privileged in one fashion or another. It would also be my guess that he never grew his own tomatoes, or anything else for that matter. I would further guess he was repulsed by the smell of manure and had never visited a “U-Pick” farm and odds were 50-50 that he even knew what one was.
Alice Waters Just Made Farm to Table Chic
What I really wanted to tell this guy was that farmers and the rural poor around the globe have been cooking farm to table for centuries. When Chez Panisse opened in 1971, I was in first grade, living on Long Island. In 1973 we moved “to the country”, upstate New York. and THAT is where I learned about farm to table cooking. People who didn’t know there was any other way have been doing just that for their entire lives. It wasn’t trendy, it was just the way to eat. Alice Waters did a lot of good things in opening the eyes of city-folk to farm fresh food, but in NO WAY did she invent farm to table cooking. Alice Waters just made it chic…and expensive…and over the top.
The Business of Growing Food
The town where I grew up had some terrific home cooks who worked wonders with whatever was in season. They cooked everything fresh from the farm during the season. As the summer turned into fall, the canning and freezing began so they would have home grown vegetables and fruit for the colder months. We knew people who had commercial farms, orchards, and dairies. It was not uncommon to see a large family, or blended family, or extended family in the business of growing food. We grew our own and picked our own from commercial farms to sustain our family, we never grew enough to make a profit on it. In high school I made friends with a set of identical twins (yes, I can still tell them apart). Their family owned a dairy and potato farm. And yes, they had milk and potatoes at every damn meal. Because that is what they had plenty of at all times. I’ve always wondered if the fruit growers had fruit at every meal and do those now adults love or hate what their families grew.
What the Country Folks Do
As I reflect further on this incredibly brief convo with this unknown man, I think about my friend Kim and the book she is writing. She is writing a book about poverty and food insecurity in America. Where I grew up there were two classes of people – the Haves and the Have Nots – we were decidedly the latter. We lived in the country, about 5 miles from the center of town. While we were poor, we rarely went without food during the warm months. My stepfather was a butcher and got meat at cost. We had chickens, so breakfast for dinner was common because we had eggs. We grew our own tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables. Our 20-acre property was bracketed by fruit orchards where we would cross the property line and “snitch apples”. Never enough to cause them loss, but enough for us to eat and the owners knew about it, saying better us eat them than the birds. Everyone who lived out by me canned, froze food or made their own jam. My mom’s grape jelly was SO good that it has ruined me for store bought grape jelly for the rest of my life. I don’t know what the people “in town” did, but I hope some of them, if they read this, take the time to comment and let me know.
The August 2021 issue of Bon Appetit magazine has a “day in the city” piece for a few different cities. The idea is a local foodie, chef, food writer, takes the “reader” where the locals eat in their city. My hometown was one of those cities. I nearly choked on my tea. I can promise you, that town was NOTHING like that when I was growing up.