Reflections on Our First Dinner

It went well, really well. All the ingredients made it to the kitchen, most of them made it into the food… except the sage, which I forgot and is still sitting in the fridge. The food all came out the right temperature at the right time, and people had fun.

But I’m a perfectionist on a mission – I want my ingredients to be 100% local, and after 2 full weeks of hunting down ingredients like it was my full time job (because well, it sort of is), I only managed to get 26% of my ingredients from a source that was within 100 miles of where the meal is being prepared and served. Our average ingredient traveled ~760 miles. That feels like a huge failure.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine how hard it is for someone in a new community to eat local if they’ve only got an hour a week to think about shopping, let alone if you add things like budget constraints, dietary restrictions, or having to feed a large family.

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So how can I get better, more local ingredients? The stores that I found on google (local health food and grocery stores) don’t seem to carry much in the way of local produce. I get the sense that Fargo is the kind of community where once you know the right people, it’s easy to get the ingredients you need… probably because that’s what people keep telling me.

“It’s all about relationships” says Toni Bach of Legacy Farms as she explains how people call clamoring for their asparagus as soon as the first shoots are up.

As I flip through cookbooks planning our next dinner, I look at a “summer” Manoomin1 recipe that calls for summer squash. Though in Vermont late June is definitely summer, Fargo’s local food scene doesn’t really seem to match up with theory, a hard lesson I learned last week with Kohlrabi.

Kohlrabi is a traditionally German vegetable which looks like the result of an unholy union between a cabbage and some kind of alien – it translates from German to literally mean Cabbage Turnip! I thought to myself, it’s in season according to NDSU extension and the North Dakota department of ag, I know there’s a large population of German descendants here, I’ll definitely find some Kohlrabi, it’s just a question of finding the right store or farm. But as I traveled from one spot to another, people blinked at me. Toni even laughed and told me they wouldn’t have Kohlrabi until August. I wound up having to buy my Kohlrabi from a local chain grocer, and it was shipped from California.

Rather than pushing forward with the summer Manoomin recipe, assuming that I’ll stumble upon the right ingredients, I turned the page the Spring Manoomin recipe, that calls for the kinds of spring greens I already know I’ll be able to source.

As my mind re-calibrates to this new surrounding, I realize … There’s a huge difference between Vermont and North Dakota… and this is going to sound really dumb but… it’s mountains.

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Legacy Gardens

Vermont’s mountains make it relatively unfeasible for commercially grown crops – you just can’t drive a massive machine anywhere around there, because nothing is flat. Here in Fargo and the surrounding parts of North Dakota and Minnesota, an ancient glacier flattened the countryside, making it an ideal spot to grow a whole lot of machine-dependent food.

The upshot of this is major farms sell major quantities of food to major consumers (big box stores, manufacturers, other countries…). Shockingly little winds up in local markets or local hands – at least it’s shocking to me after living in Vermont where almost everyone’s growing and selling something. It just doesn’t make sense for major farming operations to devote their resources to saving .01% of their produce for the local population.

I had to wonder, when I arrived in a town surrounded by farm-land, why Urban Ag was a concern. Now I have my answer, the relationship between the population dense city center and the surrounding rural growers is completely broken. I wonder if it’s like this in other parts of America?

Fortunately it seems that there are a few exceptions to this rule… efforts like Legacy Garden, Heart’n’soil, Woodchuck Community Farm. Folks who’re interested in providing healthy, organic produce to their community. These are the farmers I’ll be reaching out to as I plan next week’s menu… to find out what they’ll actually have available.

  1. Manoomin, often translated as “good seed” is what Anishinaabe people call wild rice. It is the version of wild rice that is accustomed to the long, cold winters of North Dakota – Original Local: Indigenous foods, stories and recipes from the Upper Midwest, by Heid E. Erdrich
 

michelle