Food250 Report from New England: A Communal Understanding

Hi all:

Travis Rosenbluth here.

We find ourselves in a time of food contradiction. One turns on the tv to entire networks dedicated to food: talk shows, competitions, cooking shows, etc. In addition to what we see on tv, it is seldom that you will scroll down your social media feeds without seeing a post about food. When sitting down to eat, it’s common that a diner will reach for his or her phone before grabbing the fork and knife.

But does that interest in food translate to a deeper level of understanding, or does it only go as far as our Instagrams and tastebuds?

I have been on the road for about two weeks now, driving through the Northeast region of our country as I make my way out to Fargo, North Dakota. I’ve traveled to Maine, where I visited Portland and Brunswick. I then continued to Montpelier and Burlington, Vermont, as part of ongoing research for Food250. Driving out of Vermont, I pondered what I had learned from my time in the region. I met with some fantastic people, chefs and farmers alike.

It was my conversation with a local in Montpelier that really struck a chord with me.

The man went by the name of Gampo Wickenheiser and the conversation began very organically. I was sitting at the counter of Down Home Kitchen for breakfast and struck up some small talk with the waitress behind it. Gampo sat at the other end eating his buttermilk french toast, seemingly minding his business before his day was set to begin.

It wasn’t too long before the owner of the restaurant, Mary Alice, sat next to me and involved herself in the conversation. I told them what I was in town for and Mary called over to Gampo to join. Gampo was a big man, his hands were worn like tough leather, a mark of a craftsman which he was. His hair was long, black, flowing. He introduced himself, telling me that he was a stone artist who had moved from Philadelphia years ago, and he has since been living outside of Montpelier.

He and I sat there talking, cup after cup of coffee being refilled as we spoke about food, community, and life. When it came to our food systems/culture discussion, what I found so compelling about Gampo’s point of view was that it echoed the views shared amongst many chefs and farmers.

What is that view? It is a holistic view of the process by which our food reaches the plate.

We have made great strides as a food community to get people to acknowledge the proper way to eat is by the way of “farm to table”. Nevertheless, I have witnessed that many of us are complacent in seeing a vegetable served on our dinner plates. We often assume that every step to get it there was, as advertised, arranged by the ‘farm to table’ restaurant itself.

That is simply not true. I have worked in kitchens that take advantage of the benefits of advertising one way, but not following in it in practice. Their customers are none the wiser. Still I can’t blame them. I’ve come to understand that this way of thinking is unique to the communities you live in; and that is why I found Gampo’s insight so provocative.

American cities, around which our pop culture is based, promote life through the gloss of a screen. Those who live in urban communities will see a polished, finished product of food and not the making of it. This relates to his point, in which Gampo speaks about interconnection,

“We’re all interconnected to everything. You take a piece of bread and, if you really thought about it, you’re connected [from] the person who grew that wheat to the baker [who] baked that bread. The sun it took to grow that wheat, to the rain, [it’s] all right there in that one piece of bread.

 

All these things took place in a sequence of events before that showed up in front of you. [Understanding that] changes your whole perspective of what you’re eating, why you’re eating, who you’re getting it from, who you support, who you don’t… It does dictate the direction of most things around here”.

Perspective, that is what I took away from my time in New England. I learned that it is the mindset of the community in which we live that will determine how we think about food.

The New England community is very tapped into their food systems. They bear the burden of our current systems but are willing to face those burdens as a community. They understand what it means to eat local, buy local, and grow local. Where many see an advertisement opportunity, they see growth in community.

My generation often seems more engaged with food through our phones than in real life. We must re-establish that natural connection with food, that we once had not so long ago. I believe that Americans will turn to communities, like that in Vermont, to lead us.

I am excited to continue my journey toward the Northwest and continue to understand the food culture in communities across the country. It’s my personal belief that until we embrace our communities’ understandings around food, then we will fail in trying to change our ways.

I write this post, sitting in Pittsburgh and getting ready to head out to Detroit. I can already tell that the community mindset around food in the Midwest is very different than New England, but that is for the next post.

Please follow my journey on Instagram @Food250

Cheers,

Travis H. Rosenbluth