Flash in the Pan 

The rules of food club

Remember Y2K, when the panicking masses stockpiled canned ravioli and duct tape, fearing stores would run out of supplies?

In retrospect, some might conclude these folks were simply spazzing out. But I look back on that time as a brief period of collective sanity, and as an important teaching moment. The panic was catalyzed by fears that computers would forget the time and day, but what people were actually afraid of was running out of food. Ultimately, the panic was more rooted in our dependence on supermarkets than computers.

Once, I was infatuated with the idea of living self-sufficiently, like a homesteader, squeezing out an existence from the earth by myself. I eventually gave up on that idea because, while I’ve long admired and practiced many of the skills that homesteaders used to survive the winter, I don’t want that lonely lifestyle any more than most homesteaders probably did. While modern civilization is rife with shortcomings, good old-fashioned community can be a beautiful thing.

These days I run with a loose-knit collection of good friends, casual acquaintances and neighbors, each with their own skills and specialties in the realm of food acquisition, preparation and storage. I call these people my food club.

The first rule of food club is you talk about it, a lot. You share information, trade your goods and obsess about the intertwined stories behind what’s on the table.

For instance, Bill says there are 52-and-a-half grains of gunpowder in his bullets. A grain is a unit of weight, which is confusing because gunpowder isn’t powder, but lots of small metallic pellets, or grains, the weight of which have no correlation to the measurement unit by the same name.

Bill’s bullet-loading workbench was a little dusty, as it hadn’t been used in 10 years. Bill says he usually only takes one shot a year—he, like me, shoots a .270—which means he’s still working on the batch of bullets he loaded before Y2K. We cleaned up the workbench and Bill filled me in on the story of his ammunition.

Bullets are an important piece of gear in food club. Not everyone hunts, or eats meat, but those who do eat meat need to know where it came from. That’s the second rule of food club: You have to know the story of the food, which replaces arbitrary rules like how far it traveled from field to plate. 

And nowhere is the food story more important than with meat. If more people could see the conditions in our nation’s slaughterhouses, smell the feed lots and comprehend the environmental, social, economic and humanitarian costs of factory farming, mystery meat would be more than most folks could swallow. Omnivorous food clubbers hunt for their meat, or make friends with good hunters, buy their meat from local farmers or otherwise wipe the mystery element from their meat with a tapestry of stories.

I’m loading my own bullets this year because of stories I’ve heard about problems with lead bullets. I’m switching to copper bullets, which in my caliber must be loaded by hand. I learned about copper bullets from a food clubber named Kindle, who told me about recent studies (reported in last week’s Indy) that show an increase in the lead levels of raven blood during hunting season, presumably because the birds are eating bullet-riddled carcasses left behind by hunters. Other studies have found traces of lead in the wild game meat itself, making it a human health risk as well as an environmental concern.

Hunters are natural food clubbers because they love telling stories about their food. In place of the “grace” said before a meal in many homes, my food clubbers and I take joy and satisfaction in recounting the stories behind the food. This acknowledgement, full of deep gratitude, sounds like someone recounting what they did on their summer vacation: “The tuna—from Mike’s fishing trip off of Washington state—marinated in soy sauce and homegrown garlic; the pickles I traded for at the swap meat; the green chiles in the cornbread, I brought back from New Mexico; and there’s a bottle of saffron mead from Buck’s cellar.”

The annual Swap Meat is the closest thing to a food club meeting. It happens in February, when the pantry and freezer supplies are getting low, and the selection is monotonous. Some of my food clubbers and I gather to trade the items we still have in surplus, increasing the diversity of our respective stashes. We have a good time, tell stories, and then go back to our lives. Some of them I might not see again until hunting season, when we’re sharing a tent or the back of a pickup truck.

While food club superficially resembles the actions of the panicking masses in the face of Y2K, we aren’t doing it out of fear. And we aren’t doing it to save money, though we often do. What we’re doing is mostly motivated by knowledge of the consequences—harmful and healing—that our eating choices can have on the world. And even more importantly, we’re united by a shared desire to live exceptional lives, and exceptional lives require exceptional food, which isn’t available in stores. Only stories.

Ask Ari: Catching up on our convivium

A few weeks ago I printed a letter from a reader who wanted to establish a local chapter of “slow food,” which is kind of like a better-organized, international version of my food club. The local chapters are called convivia, which literally means “to live together” in Latin. Indeed, the name captures the same intertwining of food and community that’s at the heart of food club. 

Anyway, since I printed this letter I received quite a few more letters from other interested folk who want to join in the creation of a western Montana convivium, which seems to be happening as we speak. For more info on the local chapter, feel free to e-mail me. For more info on the slow food movement go to www.slowfood.com. On that page you may notice the upcoming Salone del Gusto, the bi-annual slow food conference in Turin, Italy, which happens next month. I’m trying to make it there, and if I do, expect a dispatch. 

Also on the update front, the upcoming Bhutanese Chiles and Happiness Festival, which I recently reported was going to happen Sept. 27 at the PEAS Farm, has been moved to Oct. 4. Again, e-mail me for more info, or check the Indy’s calendar of events.

Since I didn’t leave myself much room for any questions this week, let me continue on the announcement front by reminding you that the farmers’ markets of Missoula are winding down. Both markets, at either end of N. Higgins Avenue downtown, are slated to sell their final fruits and veggies—and, in the case of the Clark Fork Market, meat, hot food, cheese, tortillas, cider, crafts, pasta, salsa and other value-added products—on Saturday, Oct. 18.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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