Flash in the Pan 

Fishing Montana's foodshed

Back in the day, I was a counselor at a farm-based summer camp in Vermont. We ate a lot of what we grew, and that was cool. But what was really cool was Food Day. Food Day happened in mid-August, when the produce was coming on strong. For a whole day, we ate only from our farm. We slaughtered chickens and ducks, dug potatoes, ground wheat. It was a beautiful exercise. Eating local food is more than just a whole-body experience, it’s a whole-community experience, and it brought us closer to each other and to our farm.

Compared to the average morsel of food, which changes hands 33 times and travels 1,400 miles en route to the plate, the goodies of Food Day were fresher, less handled, and consumed less fuel in delivery. They also tasted better, and nourished more.

One of the things I carried away from Food Day was a little ritual that I like to observe before eating. It’s kind of like grace, but not in a Blessed art thou king of the universe kind of way. I just try to imagine how all of the ingredients on my plate got there. The people and machines that grew the rice and the vegetables; those who harvested the eggs and turned them into mayonnaise. It’s hard to hold all that in your mind at once.

Last Sunday at the Hob Nob, chef Martha Buser of Café Dolce served a special meal called the All Montana Dinner. Everything on that menu—except the salt, cinnamon, pepper, allspice and olive oil—was from Montana. The menu not only listed the ingredients, but whence they came. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate a menu like this. So do the servers, when Chef Boy Ari is in the house, because I’m always asking questions like, “Where’s the beef….from?”

Dig this entry for Kamut Pilaf: “Kamut wheat from Montana Wheat and Grains; Shallots from Fialky Farm, Dixon, Mont.; Dried plums from Katie’s Garden, Missoula, Mont. Stuffed and baked in a Moregold kabocha squash, Fialky Farm.”

As I sampled, I kept saying things like, “Omigod, Helen’s peppers.” This is so much more satisfying than saying, “Omigod, the peppers.” Helen Atthowe’s peppers were in the Rainbow Swiss Chard Casserole. There was also winter squash soup, roasted roots with apple vinaigrette, roasted potatoes and garlic au gratin, roast chicken, and apple cobbler. As exciting as the food was, however, it’s the project behind the food that really got my juices flowing.

Many are aware of the importance of watersheds in determining the course of events on a regional level, in terms of politics, environmental issues, economic issues and many others.

Watersheds are natural geographic units, and things tend to stay in their respective watersheds, unless significant energy is supplied to move them.

A newer term being embraced by foodies is “foodshed.” A foodshed describes how food flows from where it is grown to where it is consumed. The primary players in the foodshed are the producers, the processors, the distributors and the eaters.

The All Montana Dinner was a celebration of an impressive effort now in progress to assess the Missoula County foodshed. This community food assessment project is a participatory process that seeks to explore our foodshed and tell us how to make our communities more food-secure and stable.

The primary players in the Community Food Assessment are the students of Professor Neva Hassenein, of UM’s Environmental Studies Program, and Maxine Jacobson of UM’s Department of Social Work. The students have been combing through agriculture survey statistics, census reports and other sources to compile baseline figures for our foodshed. Placemats at the All Montana Dinner displayed many of these numbers.

Chew on this: Between 1972 and 1997, Missoulians increased their spending on home-cooked meals by 9 percent. Over the same period, Missoulians increased their spending at restaurants by 112 percent. These are impressive statistics, and they aren’t the only ones. Getting a handle on the baseline—i.e., how things are—is a precursor to the question: How do we want things to be?

Former Mayor Dan Kemmis was in attendance. I asked him why it’s important that we be conscious of eating local food.

“By eating locally, we are supporting local producers who want to make a living on the land,” said Kemmis. “Food is a powerful force of community. Look at the Catholic tradition of communion. The Latin root of ‘communion’ is the same as with ‘community.’ That wafer symbolizes a common unity that holds us together and makes us one.”

Grooving on that gravy train of thought, I countered, “So, to continue your analogy: If the wafer symbolizes the body of Jesus, then eating a local meal is like eating the body and bones of Mother Missoula.”

Kemmis’ eyes twinkled. “You said that,” he said, “not me. But I like it.”

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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