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The church of local food

(post, Sarah Gilbert)

He had such kind eyes. Not the eyes of an imperious chef. And I, who had never eaten in his restaurant but felt that I knew him and his oeuvre so well, had made one of those connections that an audience member can sometimes make with a speaker. I know this because when I speak, I find them, someone whose gaze is comfortable to meet. A simple understanding: one is there to listen, the other to hold forth, and both of you are in the same room, metaphysically speaking as well as, yes, literally.

Despite my eagerness to hear his point of view on a hundred topics, we kept missing. I would ask a question and someone else on the panel would answer, then he would be cut off by the moderator before he could add his response, leaning forward and opening his mouth only to close it again. I sighed to myself. Here he was in this room with me — Vitaly Paley! — and I wasn't able to hear his thoughts on how to write about local, seasonal food so that a book audience, fed through the filter of book editors and publishers, could sup.

The next questioner stood up. She was larger than life, with an enormous red scarf and many hand gestures. She had a question that wound its way along, scattering opinions and generalizations as it searched for the point: "It seems that the way to get a book published is to find a hook, a trend, a gimmick . . . I mean, no offense, but 'local and seasonal' is the latest fad. What is it going to be next?" 

I may not have all the words right, but I remember specifically that she called local food a gimmick. A trend. A fad.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Gene Thiel, carrot genius."] 

I must have reacted physically, almost jumping out of my seat in horror. While she was looking to find the next mania, I was roiling. Imagine if you are a devout Roman Catholic and some person you do not know calls the sacrament of holy communion a schtick. Or something. Local and seasonal a gimmick? No! 

After nearly a year of faithfulness to eating food that is local, sustainably grown, seasonal, real, I've come to believe that it is not at all a trend, it is a Way. The way food always was, until industrialization and cheap oil screwed it up. The way food has to be, or we will be destroyed. I wanted to say all this to her. Loudly.

Vitaly Paley — who without knowing it and almost without my realization has quietly and passionately been creating a lovely, delicious path for us here in the Pacific Northwest for 20 years in his restaurant, Paley's Place, and now in his cookbook, The Paley's Place Cookbook — jumped too. He grabbed the mike and said it: Local food is not a gimmick. Local food is the natural and only possible end to our road. Local and seasonal is where we're going. Local and seasonal has always been, and someday we will get together over winter stews of celeriac and heirloom cannellini beans and Brussels sprouts and we will laugh at the very idea of a fresh raspberry tart with almonds for dessert. Ha ha ha! So silly.

When the Wordstock panel of cookbook authors had concluded, I spoke for a while to the amazing woman with a name like mine, Sarah Hart of Alma Chocolates, Sarah who did not make her amazing figs stuffed with blue cheese and dipped in chocolate in the summer because figs were out of season. She too was a believer. 

I went to the cookbook aisle and I gazed and the wonderment of Paley's book, I almost cried when I saw the portrait of wrinkled local carrot genius Gene Thiel, I closed the book and brushed my hand over it ever so gently.

I could not afford Paley's book. I had spent all my cash at the farmers' market the day before. But I did have Ivy Manning's book, The Farm to Table Cookbook, and Paley had recipes in it, so I got signatures from the two of them, and I told Paley and his wife that I agreed, that I believed in them, not as prophets so much as passionate missionaries spreading the good news of the church of local food.

Perhaps we are zealots, but I believe that the eternal life of our food system is through local and seasonal and sustainably grown food. I believe this in a way that is both religious and mixed up in religion; I think of the land flowing with milk and honey, I pray for more converts every night before bed, I tithe (and then some) in the farmers' market, I thank the good lord for the red winter kale and garlic he has provided us.

And I pray for the food soul of that woman in the red scarf. May God richly bless her with potatoes, leeks, and Oregonzola. Amen.

reference-image, l