Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

A Locavore Thanksgiving

Last year about this time, I was asked by the Chattanooga Pulse to write a cover story for their Thanksgiving issue. I thought it might be nice to re-post that article here. I hope you find inspiration for a great local Thanksgiving dinner of your own.

A Locavore Thanksgiving

In 2007 Ben Zimmer, editor of American dictionaries at Oxford Press, announced their word of year, and a movement that had been building in little circles all around the country became known to the world. The new word was “locavore,” and it referred to people who make conscious efforts to eat as locally, as minimally processed, and as natural and preservative free as possible. “It’s significant,” says Zimmer, “in that it brings together eating and ecology in a new way.”

According to http://www.locavores.com, our food “travels an average of 1,500 miles before ending up on our plates.” Some of the effects of this are obvious, such as the high carbon footprint left behind by all the trucking necessary for Tennesseans to eat California tomatoes, and the amount of preservatives and processing needed to prevent spoilage, not to mention the vast scale of agriculture, that has lead to the collapse of family farms, and the sterilization of lands under the burden of monoculture. Other costs aren’t so readily clear, however, such as the reduction of the nutritional value of foods, the government subsidies that prop up farms, and the once small-time farmers that have become nearly enslaved by the huge corporations that contract them. And how about the alarming fact that many school children cannot tell you where a chicken come from or even that strawberry is more than just a flavor? And what about flavor? If your tomatoes aren’t local, vine-ripened, and chemical free, you might ask yourself what a tomato tastes like, because there is a good chance you don’t know. Or, if you are under a certain age, you might have never known.

Given the current agricultural situation, just how realistic is it to actually eat locally? Can you buy local at the grocery store? For this article, I set out to answer those questions by preparing the most locavore Thanksgiving dinner I possibly could. To help me in my task, I enlisted local cook and author of annsfoodletters.blogspot.com to help me out. Before tackling local, I asked Ann Keener to ponder Thanksgiving for me.

“There is something very special about Thanksgiving. There are no gifts to buy, no candy to gorge on, no church services to attend, no candles to light. There are simply two things: Family and Food. Thanksgiving has amazingly lived through the 300-some-odd years of our culture, from the first musket ball to the latest tweet on Twitter without being adulterated or changed. There are no new gimmicks to buy and nothing more to NEED, just the basic human desire to share the seasonal harvest bounty.

“The meaning of Thanksgiving is this: There is one day out of the entire year that, no matter how busy we are, we will stop and go home for a large, warm meal shared with friends and family. It is a deep-rooted autumn harvest festival, along with the deep-rooted desire to sit down for a long luxurious meal. It is the most amazing holiday because it is not amazing at all. And yet, the simplicity of sitting down to eat a meal lovingly prepared with seasonal ingredients like sweet potatoes and collards might just happen once a year for some folks.”

It seemed to me that at the core of locavorism is the family and food of which Ann spoke. For our experiment, we had the family part taken care of. It was Ann’s sister-in-law’s birthday, so our pre-Thanksgiving feast for twenty would honor her.
All we needed was local, minimally-processed, preservative-free food. I poked around a bit to find out what locavore experts considered to be “local.” The 30 Mile Meal Project of Athens, Ohio has a self-evident opinion, while the USDA considers 400 miles or within the same state to be a “DGD” or day-goods-distance. Others say fifty or a hundred miles is local, With such a broad range of opinions, I turned to the Taste Buds Local Food Guide, a publication of Crabtree Farms that showcases “local foods, markets, farms and food-crafters” Their focus kept them within a 100-mile radius of Chattanooga, so that is the target we adopted.

With the 100 mile goal in mind, we were ready to shop.
We would complete all shopping in one day, buying only what was available at the moment—fresh food, no pre-orders, no deliveries. We would spend the next preparing the food and serving the meal. This meant that planning the meal would happen as we shopped and while we cooked.

Shopping began with the two grocery stores I am most familiar with. At 2.5 and 2.2 miles from my house, Greenlife Grocery on the north shore and Bi-Lo in St. Elmo were pretty darned close. To make my shopping easier, I found a knowledgeable employee upon entering each store. Unfortunately, people in management at both stores informed me that because I was writing an article for publication, they were not allowed to talk with me. Bi-Lo gave me a corporate phone number, while Greenlife made the call for me and said they would get back to me when they had a response. Four days later (and two days after our meal) I have yet to hear from them.

Fortunately, not having corporate permission did not prevent me from shopping and speaking unofficially with employees of both stores, and I have to say that each had their locavore benefits. At Greenlife, I found beautiful collards, kale, and a few cuts of lamb grown right here in Chattanooga at William’s Island Farm, and a handful of meat offerings from Sequatchie Cove. Outside of those two farms, however, I found mostly a plethora of veggies labeled “U.S.A.”
Bi-Lo, while not offering anything as close as Greenlife, did stock a wide variety of vegetables in their house “Walter’s” brand, all of which are grown in the Southeast, and some of which were even certified organic, but the southeast is a big region and best I could tell, all the produce was trucked to South Carolina for processing and packaging before being trucked out to my neighborhood store, pretty much ensuring that any produce grown in Tennessee, was first shipped out of the state only to be shipped back again.

As for the centerpiece of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner…Turkeys at Greenlife were from Pennsylvania and had to be ordered, and Bi-Lo Turkeys of unknown origin were scheduled for delivery the day after our feast.
We were not off to a good start and our one shopping day was half over. Fortunately, we had one more stop on our list: The Main Street Farmer’s Market—a weekly two-hour gathering of farmers in a vacant lot just a few blocks from my house on the Southside.

With bags in hand, Ann and I made the rounds.

The first stop: Pocket Farm, located in McClemore Cove, nine miles south of Chickamauga. According to their website, Pocket Farm “adheres to organic farming practices and offers naturally grown produce free of commercial pesticides and chemicals.” And they are 25 miles from home. So far, so good.

Several bright red-orange pumpkins caught Ann’s eye. “Let’s get some of these red kuris.” Having no idea what a red kuri was, I asked her, “what for?” to which she replied, “soup.” It was clear that I was out of my league here, but excited to see what other ideas my partner might come up with.

After spending $17.00 on several of the red kuris, we moved on to Signal Mountain Farm to buy some organic green tomatoes from Thomas O’Neal. Two booths, and the miles our produce had traveled average of about 23 miles—a pattern we would see throughout our shopping spree.

In fact, every stand we visited represented a farm that was well within the hundred-mile goal we set for ourselves, with most being much closer. And along with produce, we even found corn meal for stuffing and whole-wheat flour for gravy.
When I asked Brad Swancy from Riverview Farms how far his cornmeal traveled to get to market he laughed. “From the field to the bag it was only a mile, then about 55 miles to get here.” And what makes his corn special? “It’s heirloom, non-GMO from our own seeds so we know what we are growing,” he said matter-of-factly. “And it’s stone ground, which does not generate heat, saving enzymes.”

At the River Ridge Farm stand we chatted with farmer Dave Waters about the thirteen-pound turkey he provided. He told us about turkeys who were out of the brooder and on pasture by the time they were six week old. “We use a certified organic, whole grain, soy-free feed with no by-products,” he said. When I lauded his turkeys for being so much closer than the Pennsylvania birds available at the grocery store, Waters was quick to explain that although his farm is only fifty miles away, he did have to drive them all the way to Bowling Green for processing—the closest place available, and a problem that he and other farmers are addressing.

We chose an after dinner drink from Andrew at Velo Coffee Roasters—decaf coffee roasted in a small batch to guarantee freshness twenty-four hours before purchasing. To top it off, he delivered his beans by bicycle. Talk about carbon footprint!
At the booth next door to Velo, Tom Montague told us about his Link 41 sausage. “We use pork from River Ridge and Sequatchie Cove, and our spices come from alchemy spice—all vendors at this market. That way we know that the pork is raised well and spiced with fresh spices. And our shop is right here on Main Street, so we are serving the neighborhood.” We picked up a couple pounds of Sorghum Baconage—a sausage with extra  bacon pieces added to the regular grind and a little bit of sorghum for sweetness.

As I was leaving the Link 41 booth, Montague stopped me and asked that I turn the tape back on. Looking back towards Velo, he began talking about his neighbor.

“An important aspect of purchasing locally is that you have a concentrated effect on a community,” said Montague, “which is easy to see in our local community, but Andrew is having a specific effect on another community.” Montague was referring to the way Gage buys his beans from a broker who knows how specific farms are growing their beans—whether they are organic or not, how sustainable they are. This attention allows him to target specific growers with specific practices instead of purchasing from the industrial complex.

From farm to farm, the stories were largely the same. Organic, sustainable, pesticide-free, and heirloom were words used over and over again to describe what we put into our bags. Unlike at the grocery stores, our problem was not in finding enough local food, but in deciding what to leave behind. By the time we got back to the kitchen we had winter squash, kale, collards, sweet potatoes, peppers, fennel, green tomatoes, sausage, garlic, broccoli, corn meal, flour, arugula, sunchokes, beets, coffee, a leg of lamb, and a turkey; and we purchased every single bit of it at the farmers market. Although we did not keep an exact count, we estimated spending around $215 with an estimated average distance from farm to table for the fresh meat and produce of around 30 miles—local by any standard!

We began our cooking around 12:30 the following day, figuring out what to do with our raw materials on the fly. We stuffed the turkey with a cornmeal/squash/sausage dressing, salted the skin, brushed on a little bacon grease, and left it to do its thing in the oven.

Ann came up with a mixed winter squash soup with just enough hot red pepper to give it a little kick.
Beets were chopped and roasted, sweet potatoes were mashed with butter, garlic and a couple splashes of Pritchard’s Tennessee Whiskey (from only 60 miles away), greens were wilted with garlic and balsamic vinegar, broccoli was steamed just enough, lamb, plugged with rosemary and garlic, roasted alongside the turkey, green tomatoes were diced and glazed to make a sweet salsa, and an amazing thin gravy was cooked down from the combination of drippings in the oven.

Finally, twenty people showed up with wine, beer, whiskey, and homemade chocolate cage and brownies for dessert.
When we sat down to eat, little needed to be said; a toast was unnecessary. Plates were piled high and spirits were even higher.
As I picked up the pieces of my house the day after the big meal, I reflected back on my conversation with Tom Montague at the Link 41 booth the day before and how he took time to share an important part of the Velo coffee story. Perhaps this is where the locavore and Thanksgiving themes overlap. It was important to Montague to make sure his neighbor was shown in the best possible light. Tom makes sausage. Andrew roasts coffee beans. Kelsey raises lambs. Miriam grows peppers. Brad grows and mills corn. Dave raises turkeys. Thomas grows tomatoes. Robin grows wheat. Noah grows greens. Ann cooks. I tell stories. And I could go on and on. I know all this not because I researched them to write a story, but because we have all chosen to engage locally and that means much more than just selling at a farmers market, it means being an active part of a community. When I was hearing about Andrew from Tom, I could just have easily been hearing about any of the twenty or so vendors at the market from any one of them. They are part of a truly local, food-based economy—something I failed to find in either of the chain grocery stores, and something that is about so much more than just a carbon footprint. The vendors at the market are a part of each others businesses and lives as well as a part of their customers’ lives; they are a community, something to appreciate and be thankful for, and something Ann had more to say about.

“Giving thanks for the most precious and basic gifts of humanity should not only happen once a year. We should give thanks to every lettuce leaf, every tomato vine, and every red beet that is pulled from the soil each time the season rolls around. We should open our homes to our friends and families often and mound their plates with the most delicious things we have to offer. We should give thanks for our grandmother’s gravy, our aunt’s soft white rolls, and our mother’s smashed sweet potatoes more often. Thanksgiving should not be the only day out of the year where the meat we are eating is more important than the cars parked in the driveway. It should not be the only day that we celebrate the hands that grew and cooked our food, and it should certainly not be the only day that we enjoy each other’s company around the dinner table.”

Thanksgiving is coming up next week, and it isn’t too late to celebrate locavore—we are blessed to have a rich bounty of local farmers and food preparers using products from those farms.

Thanksgiving is all about family and food, and we found that by turning to the local farm community for our food, we reached a little farther to be a part of a bigger family.  This Thanksgiving, before you hit the grocery store, check out your local farmers market wherever you are. See what you can buy locally, get to know your farmer, support the local food economy, and see if you don’t have a Thanksgiving dinner that can’t be beat!

What do you think?