Main Street: Eating and living locally

Rich Wandschneider

We had a great Fishtrap weekend at Wallowa Lake Feb. 21-23. The theme was "Eating Locally, Thinking Globally," and that's what we did for two days. Leif Christoffersen told stories of potatoes and coffee finding their ways to Norway, and talked of the importance of trade to our third world brothers. Diane Josephy Peavey talked about the difficulties of dealing with large food chains and packing companies, and the challenges of processing and selling Idaho grown lamb. Gary Nabhan had pictures and stats on successful coops and farmers' markets in Arizona, and on the wasted energy that goes into food transportation in America. And Beth Gibans of "Backyard Gardens" in Joseph and Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant in Portland fed us well and fed us locally.

They had help. Beth used some of Gene Thiel's root crops and mushrooms, Diane Seely's eggs, Daggett Apiary honey, Restoration Gardens garlic, a bunch of stuff from her own garden and from Janie Tippett's larder as well as fruits, vegetables and juices she picked up from growers along the road from Portland to the County. She imported shiitake mushrooms, garbanzo beans and spelt from Union County, and, along with Joseph food fiend Lynne Sampson, developed a "local wheat" bread recipe with some McLaughlin hard red spring wheat and Melville soft white. Wildflour baked the bread, and it was delicious.

On Saturday night Greg Higgins and his Portland sous chef took over Steve Roundy's kitchen at Russell's at the Lake, and, with Steve and a crew of Fishtrap volunteers, cooked up a meal of Oregon Country Beef braised in Terminal Gravity Breakfast Porter. I won't try to be exhaustive about the appetizers, the side dishes, and the apple crisp for dessert. Just know that the assorted pickled garlic heads, ferns, and vegetables, the breads, Higgins cured ham, cheese and hummus were all terrific.

Although a lot of the makings came from Greg's Portland kitchen, he graciously used and promoted what others had brought - Thiel's smoked steelhead and the mushroom man's truffles for examples. That, it seemed to me, was part of the joy of the weekend. A lesson as old as food fairs and bazaars, gardeners trading foods and cooks trading recipes around the world - that gathering the food and knowing where it is from and how it is prepared are distinct and important pleasures.

Not only did we take food and meals back from their place as nuisance, hassle, and how can we get this done cheap and in a hurry, but we discussed the economics of it all. According to Nabhan, farmers received 60 cents of the food dollar in 1910. That had halved by 1970, and it had halved again, to about 15 cents, by 2000. Our local neighbors can tell us that 15 cents isn't enough to pay the bills on the farm. One of the questions is who is getting the 85 cents now: corporations? middle-men? marketers and advertisers? Probably all of the above, and what about the quality of our foods? Are the pale yellow egg yolks, the tough skinned tomatoes, and the boned chicken breasts in a Styrofoam pack as tasty as the stuff we once got from our own backyards and neighbors' farms?

It could get depressing if one kept thinking along these lines, but the crew at Fishtrap didn't allow that to happen. This was a group of writers, cooks, gardeners, farmers, and eaters bound to look for ways to squeeze the lemonade out of the sour fruit. When Higgins disclosed that he spent a million dollars annually on local products in one Portland restaurant, eyes opened.

When he said that he didn't know anything about Costco, but he knew his pig farmer in Goldendale and his potato farmer in Joseph, people looked around the room. When he told us he paid $10 a head for free range chickens, and that an Oregon farmer could raise and butcher 1,500 chickens annually without getting federally inspected, we listened. And a Portland backyard garlic grower made a date to talk with Greg about her product.

Fishtrap generally caters to writers, although there is most often a theme involved that gives the writing its edge. And I left the weekend with one strong metaphor - a writers' word meaning that you use one word or idea to mean or represent something else. My metaphor for the weekend is the vacant lots that comprise Beth Gibans' "Backyard Gardens" in Joseph. She is making food and part of an income out of what have been long-time vacant lots, and I want to know what other kinds of vacant lots are out there today in Wallowa County. I want to know how we can make applesauce and apricot brandy out of all the windfall fruit in old orchards, and how I can once again buy a locally grown hunk of beef or pig in a Wallowa County food store. I want to eat better and keep a little more of that 85 cents at home.

Does that mean we forget about the rest of the world? Gary Nabhan closed by saying that when you try to eat and do as much as you can locally and seasonally, the stuff from somewhere else becomes special again. Winter oranges from California were once a Christmas treat, chocolate was a special gift, and coffee and salt the exotic staples in a sheepherder's wagon. For a few days at Fishtrap we tasted everything again like it was the first time.

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