Consider the Source
Idealism versus practicality vie in local food fight
By Payton Curry
When I left my job as chef at the Quince Tree in San Francisco almost seven years ago in order to move to the Valley, my mentors told me that I was committing culinary suicide, “because the only thing that you can grow in the desert is cactus”. That may be partially true in the summer months, but what drew me to this new state of mine is the fact there are actually multiple growing seasons and amazing culinary opportunities. I wanted to be a part of the “Rawvolution”, exploring new ways to cook and eat in a state full of farm-to-table possibilities, and that means trying to see the big picture.
When I hear about restaurants that claim to be 100% local and organic I ask one simple question; “Where do you get your salt from?” It is pretty safe bet it isn’t locally. The focus needs to shift from the local only mentality to nutrient density. How the produce was grown rather than where. Is it organic, certified organic, pesticide free, etc., and when was it picked. If these questions are not asked and answered honestly, we are all guilty of supporting “fauxcal”. (That’s false local-- get it?).
I have worked at the farmers markets here in the Valley for 5 years and have watched chefs and restaurants come and go. Every Wednesday at the Town and Country Farmers Market and every Saturday at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market you’ll hear me preaching this simple philosophy on cooking, “season your food with the calendar, not salt.” In other words, try to buy what is grown and sold by local farmers and is available seasonally.
Supporting local growers insures the availability of nutrient rich vegetables that will reduce your waist and increase your bottom line. The first reason is obvious. The second increases your bottom line by the total utilization of goods. Carrots come with their greens on top (make pesto); radishes and turnips come with leafy greens that can be sautéed, juiced, served salad style and so on. The greatest part about it isn’t only that your dollar stays in the local community; it’s that by spending that dollar here it ensures the farmers will be back next season to keep you healthy enough to keep making that dollar year after year.
The downside for the organic produce movement in the Valley is that there is a vast amount of pavement to cover. This makes it very difficult for the farmers to make deliveries, and economic sense of growing for a business, not just a living. One of the Valley’s largest organic growers, McClendon’s Select Organics, has used an “apple a day“ approach by instituting online ordering for customers.
Each year in August I look forward to that call, to come back on board for another season of what I call my “retail therapy and farmers marketing.” I have been fortunate enough to have been immersed in the local food scene and able to talk to the farmers and chefs, exchanging ideas on how to promote the movement.
A big part of this is understanding how local farmers work with other farmers around the country for the benefit of consumers.
I respect the way farmers have diversified their businesses by providing goods we couldn’t easily get otherwise. In my mind, this is the true definition of supporting local. The farmers trade with other farmers around the country for goods to be sold in our markets that we otherwise could not obtain within the 100% Arizona-grown mentality.
You might find them shipping citrus out of state to other farmers in exchange for those apples for you want to bake into pies for the 4th of July. Some may say that’s not supporting local, but in truth, it’s practical business that provides a source of good food we cannot provide from our own backyard.
We use this same philosophy on our menus at the Brat Haus and Taco Haus. At the Brat Haus we are able to offer a wide array of vegan and vegetarian menu options because the versatility of the “dirt candy”, as we fondly call it, that’s available here in the valley. Our best selling salad is beet salad with wheat berries and pecan pesto. The McClendon’s grow the beets, greens and basil (70% of the year to be clear, the other 30% is thanks to a small family farm in Hawaii). Sossamon Farms along with Hayden Flour Mills provide the wheat berries, and the pecans are grown in Green Valley, Arizona. Here’s the kicker; the olives for the olive oil aren’t grown in Arizona. For me, it’s no big deal. I also add cheese from Wisconsin on our 18 Heirloom Grain Vegan Burger for free. Vegetarians appreciate the humor.
I have walked the fields of Sonoita thrashing wheat by hand at Avalon Gardens just as it was done in the 1800’s, and I have also been in the cab of a multimillion dollar combine. Which do I prefer? The answer is both. Why? Because these organic fields are providing us with ancient grains to make fermented breads to feed those with gluten intolerance. The purpose of one method of harvesting is to feed a community; the other method is to feed the masses by exporting heritage grains overseas.
Eating 100% local and organic is a great goal. It’s also difficult to achieve. Supporting farmers and chefs who work together to provide seasonal organic products is the next best thing, and that’s pretty darn good.