Saturday, February 13, 2010

Deborah Madison Lyceum Series Cuyahoga Valley National Park

I had the pleasure and privilege of hearing Deborah Madison, award-winning author of nine cookbooks, including Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets, speak at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association's Lyceum Series.

If you think it's impressive that the nationally acclaimed author came to Ohio in snowy February, consider this: It was her second trip in two weeks.  Last week she spoke at Wooster College, and checked out the new co-op in Wooster, Local Roots.

And it turns out, she actually was an Ohio resident, although she was too young to recall living here.  Her parents owned a farm in Minerva when she was a baby.  She said that she when she learned that the Cuyahoga Valley National Park had farms and farmer's markets within it's borders, she was intrigued and wanted to visit. 

When she wrote Local Flavors, which was published in 2002, she researched and visited farmer's markets across the country, including the then fledgling Cleveland North Union Market.

She wrote of how the local flavors of Northeast Ohio were driven by corn and tomatoes (crops which are still summer favorites here), and that new farmers to the market were told to "Go home, look at some food magazines, and watch TV Food Network and see what foods are popular and different."  And bit, by bit the market diversified and grew.  North Union now has 8 markets in different locations vs. the one that existed when Deborah first did her research.

She explained the roots of the farmer's markets, in the 1970's, started as commodity farmers attempted to divest themselves of vegetables deemed unmarketable in supermarkets.  Oddly shaped items that didn't match the physical ideals of supermarket consumers were usually discarded.  Farmer's markets provided an outlet to sell those items - the eggplants with noses, the three legged carrots,  and the stunted, but still tender broccoli and cauliflower.

Farmer's markets have evolved to include something old and something new.  Regional favorites, things to fragile to travel,  mushrooms and other foraged foodstuffs, along with some newer things that would never be seen in supermarkets, began to appear as farmer's market gained popularity.

She explained how local food culture plays a role in "your local".  She currently lives in Santa Fe, so naturally chiles and ground corn products are part of the local food culture, but when farmers experimented with growing and selling okra, they didn't find a ready audience for the traditionally southern crop.

While she explained that she isn't totally anti-supermarket, she pointed out there is a community and social aspect that is missing when things are tossed into a cart while having a cell-phone conversation. Interaction between farmer and consumer, and the other shoppers is part of renewing America's food traditions.

Sometimes the interaction is there whether you like or not.  Because Madison is so well known at her market, a quick trip through isn't really an option.

She also touched on crop biodiversity.  She read from a chart that listed the number of crops grown in area in the 1920's, and the same area in 2000.  Many fruits and vegetables were lost, and not surprisingly, corn and soybeans topped the 2000 list.

She is a board member of the Seed Savers Exchange, and stressed the importance of saving heirloom and open pollinated varieties.  She talked about Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov, subject of Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famin, who spent his life collecting and cataloging seeds.  Ironically, he died from starvation rather than eat the the collected seeds.

She pointed out that cheap food causes people to not pay as much attention, and that much like paying for therapy rather than taking a friend's advice, paying a higher price for food makes people consider and select it more carefully.

She has a new book coming out soon, Seasonal Fruit Desserts: From Orchard, Farm, and Market.  When it comes to fruit, she made a couple of points.  First, that we've stopped smelling the fruit before purchasing, and also that we are losing the variety names.  Using plums as an example, supermarket options have reduced the names to "red" and black", when in fact there are dozens of varieties.  She pointed out that both farmers and consumers need to start naming varieties so they can be asked for again.

Regarding seasonality, she pointed out that in season means, in season where you live.  Supermarkets reflect the "season of the world".  Local seasonal foods also usually have a natural affinity.

She recommended that everyone develop at least a basic grasp of botanical plant families, because plants from the same family also tend to taste good together, such as carrots and dill, spinach and chard, and tomatoes and eggplant.  I thought that was interesting, because I had just pulled The Anatomy of a Dish, off the shelf earlier that day, which actually diagrams flavors by botanical family.

If you missed Deborah's talk, I have good news for you.  She will be returning in August and doing a book signing for her new book.  Be sure and sign up for the newsletter at the Countryside Conservancy to stay tuned.  Also, please consider become a member of the Conservancy and supporting them financially.

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