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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
October 6, 2005 - October 12, 2005 Edition
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Garden Notes: Eating locally makes delicious sense

October 6, 2005

By Abigail Higgins

Harvest heaven, the season's bounty.

Photo by Susan Safford

We have come to the time of year that many of us look forward to as a long, slow, gentle coast downhill from the pressures of summer. It is officially Fall, the autumnal equinox having occurred on September 22. Gardens are offering up their final extravaganza of warm-season produce and bloom, helped by the recent and welcome rains, clear sunny days, and cooler temperatures.

As one small unit of a growing national movement that extols "eating locally," the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society (MVAS) is hosting its seventh annual Harvest Festival this Saturday, October 1, at the fairgrounds in West Tisbury. To showcase Island agriculture and gardens, the food throughout the event is Island-grown. The activities start at noon and end with dancing to the music of the Blue Strangers until 10 pm.

In an effort to widen the welcome to all and to create an affordable event in these times of upward-spiraling household budgets, the MVAS has altered the Harvest Festival format somewhat. The evening meal is now planned as a potluck dinner (instead of the sit-down dinner for which one previously bought a ticket) but with one little challenge…. Can you bring a dish that is composed of Island-grown ingredients?

Changes in food patterns

There are many elements in the idea of eating locally and a discussion of them is not out of place in a garden column. Some readers may be surprised to learn that there is a growing national movement that extols this notion, and a few others would be surprised that there is any other way to eat! Accelerating suburbanization has distanced many of us, both metaphorically and literally, from the sources of sustenance we nonetheless depend upon. Changes in agriculture and food processing have altered distribution patterns nation-wide.

Our own Island until the early 1900s was a food exporter, which meant that many of the Vineyard population at that time were intimately involved with the raising, growing, harvesting, and hunting of foodstuffs. Island foodstuffs went to market in Boston and New York, arriving in a fresh and timely fashion by steamer and train.

Today we are almost entirely a food-importing community, with diminished capacity to grow or process what we eat. Martha's Vineyard is now the proverbial end-of-the-line community (an island) in an end-of-the-line region (New England). It is a disturbing reality that our distribution system is ever more vulnerable to glitches that might leave us mighty short out here.

We have all become accustomed to using food products that are already partly or wholly processed. Many of us are really unsure of what to do if we receive some item fresh from the woods or sea. It is not only young children who know little about where their food comes from; many of their parents do not either. Squeamishness has entered the picture too, making foods once common in the diet during my childhood, such as organ meats or herring roe, now greeted with disgust or horror. "Eeeou!" Our kitchens lack the simple hand-powered gadgets that lightened some of the labor of home food production back in the day. We lack the know-how of growing and putting food by. And we lack the time needed to perform these tasks and to enjoy their results.

It would only seem to make sense that more and more Americans have started to recognize some of the problematical aspects of food security under this system and would turn to local producers where possible. It is a serious topic. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina many Americans have had their eyes opened (wider than they ever wanted) to the appalling lives of their fellow countrymen who live in urban slums and to the thin line that separated New Orleanians from starvation and bestial conditions. But it is not too much of a stretch to imagine catastrophes that would interfere with normal life in any part of the United States. Can we really afford the loss of viable, self-sufficient rural communities?

But that doesn't seem to be the case at all. What eating locally really seems to be about is enjoyment. Freshness, taste, and flavor, variety, and choice: food is back in style! More small producers seem to appear all the time in all kinds of food-related endeavors. Cheeses, salsas, hop-growing and beer-making, free-range eggs and poultry, grass-fed lamb, pork and beef, wine-making and grape-growing, sauerkraut, potatoes in rainbow colors and diverse shapes — the list goes on and on, and it is all about better taste and freshness. Local is the new organic.

The path I took into these areas of eating and the varieties of food is Slow Food. The Slow Food movement is devoted to celebrating the world's distinctive food cultures and now numbers over 80,000 members in 104 nations. Slow Food is an organization that was founded in Italy (a nation famous for its highly evolved agriculture and cuisine) in 1986. "…Eating is fundamental to living. Elevating the quality of our food and taking time to enjoy it is a simple way to infuse our daily lives with joy. This is the philosophy of Slow Food." Its name is said to be in apposition to "fast-food," as in the "golden arches."

Slow food, good food

I first heard of Slow Food from Mitchell Posin of the Allen Farm in Chilmark. He had become interested in Slow Food's work and let me borrow some literature. A sampling:

"With food so central to daily life, it naturally follows that what we eat has a profound effect on our surroundings as well — the rural landscape of the countryside, the duration of tradition and the biodiversity of the earth. For a true gastronome, it is impossible to ignore the strong connections between plate and planet."

On the Vineyard it is undoubtedly true that elevated real- estate prices make it difficult for young, energetic, would-be farmers to get on the land. One of the goals of our community and its leaders should be finding a way to facilitate that. But it is also true that farms smaller than five acres, sometimes known as vest-pocket farms, are among the most productive not only in the United States but also on a worldwide basis. Many extremely productive truck gardens are less than 100 feet square. There are no limits on the variety of niche crops and value-added food products. Though it is hard work, there is great pride and satisfaction in producing what one eats.
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