Friday, May 30, 2014

Food Wonking

Wednesday night I attended a forum hosted by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council.  Although it was titled “Growing Local Food Entrepreneurs,” I wasn’t entirely sure whether it would benefit or really interest me in any way.  But I write about food, I feel like an entrepreneur, and there were going to be free samples, so what was there to lose?

The number of people that gathered at 7th Street Market at 5:00 was impressive, but it didn’t take very long to notice a sad sameness in the crowd.  Overwhelmingly white, reasonably affluent, mostly young.  The host, presenter and panel members also fit this demographic.  Fashionable sandals and business cards were everywhere.

To begin, we were treated to a presentation with lots of facts from a government-funded assessment of our food system: 286 farms in Mecklenburg County, most of them small family farms; $763 million spent on fruit and vegetables by residents of the 14-county assessment region, $100 million of that food grown locally; the average worker’s annual income is $27,500, the average farm worker’s is $22,000, and the average food preparation worker’s is $20,000.

I found all these numbers fascinating, but as the presentation moved from “findings” to “opportunities,” I kept waiting to hear something that truly fit the next buzzword, “action plan.”  When all was said and done, the only real action I heard suggested was “intentional network development.”  Basically, get like-minded people together to…talk to each other.

Wasn’t that what we were already doing?

After the presentation, there was a more informative panel discussion featuring three small business owners and the manager of one of our local farmers markets.  But I still felt a disconnect between this discussion about maneuvering through local permitting processes and all the information that had been revealed earlier.  Granted, the focus of this gathering was indeed to support the development of local food businesses, but it seemed like the overarching goal was supposed to be getting healthy food to people who don’t have access to it.

And that, at least in our community, is the real disconnect.  The individual enthusiasm I observe for healthy, sustainable food grown locally is funneled into local businesses like raw food restaurants, artisan bakers and specialty cheese producers.  Is locally fermented kombucha really the best answer we have for Charlotte’s rising obesity rates and stubborn food deserts?

Let me clarify a few things here—I am not knocking any of the businesses to which I’ve alluded above, nor do I think that encouraging local food entrepreneurs is a useless undertaking.  I’m just expressing my frustration that, with all the eager, head-nodding concern and enthusiasm I’ve witnessed in numerous similar gatherings, combined with the rapid increase in demand for locally produced foods, we seem no closer to taking strong action to spread this nutritional wealth down the socio-economic ladder.

Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that I had spent two days previous to this forum volunteering with Friendship Gardens.  In fact, I arrived there directly from meeting with a group of gardening senior citizens, under the auspices of the Backyard Friendship Gardens program.  This initiative invites home gardeners to plant and donate extra harvest to Friendship Trays, our local meals on wheels program.  Being relatively new, the Backyard program’s biggest obstacle right now is figuring out the most effective way to get that produce from all over the city into the donation station close to Uptown. 

Do you sense a theme here?  We have 286 farms in Charlotte, and numerous food deserts.  We have churches, schools and individuals willing to farm in their own backyards and give the food away.  Yet, we cannot seem to get the food from the ground where it’s grown to the people who need it.

In short, our biggest food problem is transportation.

I am not a policy wonk.  The further issues of funding, education, jurisdiction of government agencies, additional social factors are beyond my ken.  All I know is that there are citizens out there whose only food options are wrapped in plastic and labeled with unpronounceable ingredient lists, and there is a growing pool of farmers growing healthy, whole food practically next door.  What is it going to take to bring them together?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Not for the Faint of Heart

Let’s be honest…this is where it starts.


This is the back end of a small horse trailer where a pig spent its last night.  It was separated from its herd, driven to a distant part of the farm, and left overnight.  The next morning it was given some stale bread—a favorite pig treat—and shot in the head before it could finish.  Twelve hours later its blood still stained the trailer and the ground where it had fallen and begun to bleed out.

In the meantime, not twenty feet away, a crowd of people were having a party, and the pig was the guest of honor.


While we waited for the roasted pig to be unveiled and broken down, I pointed out to some of my companions the oddness of this juxtaposition.  Even the most well-informed farm-supporting members of the group told me “You’re not supposed to think about that now.”

I beg to differ.  I think that’s exactly what we need to be thinking about.  Maybe not in such melodramatic terms, but to be an honest eater of meat, we need to accept that our meals require death. 

There’s nothing wrong with death; even though it frightens us, it is a natural part of existence.  In our modern society, though, we have wrapped ourselves in the luxury of being separated from death.  Wars take place far away and on tv, and we can avoid the details without too much effort.  Farm animals are slaughtered behind locked gates and closed doors.  In spite of rising concerns about the conditions and methods on the killing floor, “processing facilities” resist transparency, and the public seems just as happy about that.  The only transparency most Americans want is in the plastic film covering their neatly excised proteins in the grocery store.

As deaths go, this pig had a good one.  The reason it was transported to the killing area the night before was to allow it time to adjust to its surroundings, so it could be approached without sending it into a panic.  Granted, this was in part to minimize the stress hormones that would flood its system and alter the taste of its flesh, but it also allowed it to enjoy its last meal.  The pig was treated respectfully, standing in an open trailer with breakfast, and not kicked and shoved down a shit-smeared chute toward a concrete building filled with the smells and sounds of routine death.  The killing shot was delivered expertly, a nearly instantaneous transition from alive to dead.  Finally, when the pig was hung to bleed out, there were no doubts that it was dead, no chance of a live animal squealing out its last minutes on the hooks.

Does this offend, shock or disgust you?  Would you rather turn your eyes from the blood and try to avoid forming a mental image of this pig’s last minutes?  Then you are being dishonest about the meat you put in your mouth, whether it came from a pig, chicken, cow, rabbit or camel.  I am not trying to convince you to become a vegetarian, I am writing to urge you to make your food choices more considered and deliberate.

This was a lucky pig.  It was not packed in side-by-side on a hard concrete pad for its entire short life, given steroids to make it grow faster, antibiotics to make up for an unnatural diet, and its tail cut off to prevent cannibalization by other stressed pigs.  That is the fate of the millions of pigs raised on the factory farms that allow your local grocer to advertise “Sale!  Pork loin roast $3.97/lb, this week only!”  Subtext: “Eat all you want, we’ll grow more, no matter the effects on pig, economy or environment.”

No,that was not the fate of this pig.  This pig roamed a forest on the South Carolina coast, rooting for grubs, small animals and nuts dropped by the overarching live oak trees.  This pig grew up next to its mother, part of a pack, pushing its strong pliable snout through the dirt the way it was meant to, running for the dinner bell with nothing but food on its mind.

Yes, this pig was raised by humans specifically to be killed young and eaten.  On the other hand, it was also given the space and opportunity to explore its world and live free of fear.  And that is why I had no problem with gathering around in celebration and stuffing its rich flesh into my mouth while gazing at the damp patch of blood that marked its final moments of life.  Its purpose was to provide food, and the worst disrespect we might have shown was if we had treated it poorly, caused it fear, or slaughtered more than was needed and thrown the meat away.

Cultures around the world offer up prayers on the occasion of a meal, some of them thanking the spirit of the animal for providing sustenance.  I’m not a believer of the Great Porker in the sky, but after this pig was carried from the pit to the table where it would be broken down, I did step up to it, gaze down at its shiny, caramelized snout, and say out loud, “Thank you, pig.” 

And I meant it.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


I live with a chef.

This revelation is met with a template reaction.  There’s usually a slightly uplifted chin, a sudden opening of the eyes, and a broadening of the smile.  I wait to see which response I’ll get:

“Oh, so you must eat really well!”

“You know all about that fancy food.”

“Really? Now, let me ask you, every time I make…”

“I love Cooking TV!  Do you ever watch Bigshot Chef?”

I could cut them off, answering, “No, not really,” “I guess you’d call it fancy,” “I’m not the chef,” or just “No.”  But I find it’s better to engage people, let them ask their questions or express their enthusiasm, before puncturing their illusions.

Because, in fact, I don’t eat really well.  Not normally.  Normally, that food expert I live with isn’t even home when I eat.  Where is she?  At work, of course!  Just a little bit of reflection will reveal that at dinnertime, it’s physically impossible for a chef to be at a restaurant feeding guests and also at home feeding her family.  Result: the chef’s family eats like any other family in America.  Chefs’ wives also have to work, so we play the same mid-week “What’s left in the refrigerator?” game that you do.

Ok, yes, we probably do have more interesting ingredients and better leftovers than you do.  But simply living with a chef does not magically give one the ability to create a well-balanced mole sauce or tender pork chops.  In fact, when I do my evening’s refrigerator search, I often have to look past a gauntlet of unlabeled, odd-looking sauces that were deposited there late one night without any explanation, while the person who could offer that explanation is, naturally, at work.  More often than you’d guess, I end up closing the refrigerator door and making myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner. 

Oh,and let me tell you, the garbage-night fridge-cleaning routine is very frustrating when you don’t know if that goopy liquid behind the pickles is way past edible, or simply a scoby awaiting the next batch of kombucha.  And of course, you can’t ask the person who put it there, because—say it with me, now—she’s at work.

But yes, I will acknowledge I occasionally get to live the dream.  I’ve received free invitations to black-tie galas and backyard picnics featuring an entire lamb roasted on a spit.  I’ve eaten at nationally and internationally-known restaurants, and have access to a certified wine expert who can order the most amazing sparkling pinot you’ve never heard of.  I seldom eat at a local high-end restaurant without receiving tableside visits from the chef and at least one extra course sent out gratis.  And yes, when my chef is at home, and does have the time and motivation to cook, I do, definitely, eat better than you.

On an average day, though, there’s no need to be jealous of my dinner.  Unless it’s for the fabulous homemade jam I’m spreading on my sandwich.  The jam canned by yours truly, while Chef was at work.