The Call, Column 85 – What You Learn on Thanksgiving

12 12 2017

(November 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

What You Learn on Thanksgiving

Early Friday morning, I sat down to one of my favorite meals of the year, a heaping plate of Thanksgiving leftovers. Right as I was about the take the first bite, I paused and thought to myself: “I’m not nearly as reflective about the local-ness of my food as I used to be.”

When I started seriously urban farming five or six years ago, which was right around the same time that I started buying from local farms and farmers markets, I remember being obsessed about the origin of the things on my plate at each meal. I don’t mean that I was compulsive or anything; I didn’t require that everything I ate be local/organic/whatever, or lament over anything that wasn’t. I just spent a lot of time in self-congratulatory mode, meditating over whichever ingredients I had managed to source locally/organically/whatever, or had grown myself.

But over the past few years, I’ve gotten so good at sourcing my food mostly locally, that it’s second nature at this point. A majority of my food comes from the local foodshed and my own yard, because I’ve put “systems” in place – shopping regularly at the farmers market, structuring my diet around foods available year-round in our area, processing and storing some of my garden’s produce, and keeping my fridge and freezer always stocked with meats and vegetables of known and acceptable origin – to make sure of it. I’m used to it that it no longer even occurs to me to stop and think about that fact at every meal.

But something about Thanksgiving changed that. This meal was made up of layer upon layer of significance; layers of meaning that were deeper than just taste and nutrition. The same may be said about any meal, to a varying degree. But I thought it would be fun today for us to dissect this a little and really ruminate over the meaning hidden in the foods on our holiday plates.

The first layer is that the meal is made of local, quality ingredients. I don’t have to explain to you how important this is. Our entire Thanksgiving meal was made up of real, while ingredients, mostly vegetables and meat.

But beyond this, we were able to source many of the primary  ingredients from the local foodshed. The truly free-range turkey was from Radical Roots Farm in Canterbury, CT, a beyond-organic farm owned by my friends Aly and Ryan. It was among the best turkeys I’ve ever had; so much so, that there is another in my freezer.

The Brussels sprouts, cranberries, potatoes, apples, pumpkins, and onions were all from local, sustainable farms; the garlic, tomatoes, spices, and a couple of other ingredients were from my garden; even the olive oil was sourced as locally as possible (California). Basically every food on the Thanksgiving table can be sourced from the local foodshed; and absolutely every ingredient can come from sustainable farms that know what’s up. This is the most basic significance of the food, and one that I’m glad I was reminded of by my plate of holiday leftovers.

Digging down, the next layer of meaningfulness is that the work of so many hands went into creating the meal. At base, of course, is the fact that farmers grew the food.

And this meal represented three generations of my family: my grandparents cooked the turkey and stuffing, my mom made the vegetables and potatoes, I did the desserts (ironic, much?) and a couple of sides, and my sister and her boyfriend made a cheesecake and a nice batch of grain-free tabbouleh. And my dad, though he doesn’t cook too often, supports the effort by cleaning the house and helping where needed.

Though my family usually eats one meal together per day, the vast majority of cooking and preparation is done individually. I can’t overstate the significance of this big meal, where each of us made a significant contribution to the end goal.

The next layer of meaning, is the power of this meal to bring people together. The dinner (actually lunch) itself included the people above: my grandparents, my parents, me, my sister, and her boyfriend. But when it came to dessert, the circle got even bigger.

My grandfather’s sister, my mom’s brother and his family, and two of her cousins and their families, along with two of our oldest, closest family friends, all came to spend the latter part of the day. We talked, laughed, gossiped, and of course, ate more. This is something that doesn’t happen nearly enough for my liking, especially for a Greek family. And it demonstrates the power of food and celebration to bring people together.

The final layer is, of course, the cultural and historical tradition which led us to this feast day. Now, I will be the first to point out that the history of our country, especially at the time of the first European expansions into North America, is one of genocide and imperialism. We did not have any claim to this land, and the ensuing takeover of a relatively peaceful land of small hunter-gatherer and agrarian tribes was violent and uncomfortable.

But it happened long ago, and the best we can do now, as individuals, living in this country, is to remember and learn from those events (and make reparations, of course). Thanksgiving Day was established to commemorate the knowledge and help passed on from the Native American tribes to the first, relatively peaceful English settlers, which allowed them to survive in the harsh climate of New England.

In spite of the history, it is the selflessness of the Native Americans – acts which crossed religious, national, and cultural lines – that is commemorated in our continued celebration of Thanksgiving Day. It is the deepest layer of significance in that meal I was contemplating, and one that should occupy our thoughts each year as we celebrate.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 59 – A Thanksgiving Message

15 01 2017

(November 20, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Thanksgiving Message

           Almost as quickly as it began, the Halloween season is over. I hope you all had a spooky, fun-filled Halloween, and a very agricultural beginning of the autumn.

But the end of October means the start of another great time of year, especially in New England. No, I’m not talking about Christmas, despite the decorations, ads, and artificially-flavored coffees that took over the world at midnight on November 1st. I’m talking, of course, about Thanksgiving!

This holiday was originally established to commemorate the annual harvest celebration observed by the European settlers and Native Americans, an example of mutually-beneficial cooperation in an otherwise strained relationship. The Americans helped the European settlers to subsist off the unfamiliar North American terrain, and many Europeans worked towards harmony and peaceful coexistence with the natives.

Today, Thanksgiving has become a time where we slow down our lives, putting aside the stressors and distractions that define the Standard American Lifestyle, in favor of good, wholesome food, cooked and enjoyed with loved ones. To those of us with strong religious faith, this is a time to thank God for the food we enjoy, the wonderful Creation that is capable of providing for us all, and for the people and creatures and things and vocations which give our lives meaning.

And to us environmentally- and historically-conscious urban farmers, Thanksgiving means so much more. It is truly a celebration of the harvest, of the hard work performed by our ancestors, our families, our farmers, our animals, our Earth, and our own hands, in order to nourish and grow.

It is also a time of year when we can loudly put our beliefs into practice, celebrating with food grown, raised, and harvested according to our high standards; food that is biologically-appropriate for our bodies, which nourishes them rather than tearing them down.

Today, I want to share with you some suggestions that I’ve found helpful, to make a Thanksgiving worthy of an urban farmer.

Buy local, organic, and sustainable. Good, wholesome food is at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday, and our buying habits, on this of all days, drive the food production market. When consumers buy turkeys that cost $1 per pound, the food industry and government perceive market signals that the unethical factory farming, expensive grain subsidies, and environmental destruction that keeps the price that low are acceptable; when consumers buy cranberries produced God-knows-where, the market hears that locally-produced cranberries aren’t a priority.

All of the fixings for a Thanksgiving table can be bought in our local foodshed. There are a couple of great turkey farms in this area (our turkey is coming from Baffoni’s in Johnston), but I would suggest calling in order to reserve a turkey ASAP. New England is also renowned for our cranberry bogs, and Fairland Farms offers their organic cranberries at the Pawtucket Winter Farmers Market. The farmers market is a great place to get pretty much every ingredient you need for thanksgiving – vegetables of all sorts, sweet corn, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, and even the dairy and other secondary ingredients to your favorite recipes. Much of this produce is organic or sustainably produced, and all of it is local.

Eat healthy foods, and include lots of color. The Standard American Diet tends to be rather tan-white in color, made of mostly of grains, dairy, sugars, and lean meats. That is a recipe for a health disaster. You want to be eating poultry with a lot more dark meat, which indicates a healthier bird that lived a happier life. Minimize the nutritionally-devoid grains, sugars, and over-processed dairy, and instead focus on nutrient-dense proteins and fats (from meat), loads of colorful vegetables and moderate amounts of fruits, and some starchy vegetables for variety.

A truly healthy Thanksgiving (like any meal) retains the best-tasting, healthiest foods – the turkey (especially the skin and dark meat!), the sweet potatoes, the cranberries, and the pumpkins and winter squash, as well as Brussels sprouts, green beans, and the like – and cuts out the cheap filler carbohydrates. Splurge on a non-CAFO turkey and some organic Brussels sprouts at the farmers market, and leave the bread on the shelf.

Here’s one suggestion I’ve recently discovered: instead of traditional pumpkin pie in a flour crust, sweeten the filling with maple syrup and make a much healthier coconut- or almond-flour crust, or skip the crust altogether and bake it in individual custard cups.

Cook from scratch. There are so many reasons why you should cook things from scratch, this should be a given. Any food is going to be healthier if it was made in your kitchen, from real ingredients, rather than in a factory. But what’s more, cooking foods from scratch lets you choose the quality and types of ingredients that go into them. If you must have them, make your pie crusts with real butter, and leave the Crisco in the 1950s where it belongs. Cook with butter and olive oil and coconut oil, make stuffing from real chestnuts, celery, and turkey drippings, roast and puree actual pumpkins to make pie, and make lower-sugar cranberry jelly from scratch (talk about a fun experience!). It’s all a lot easier than it seems, costs less, and makes a better dish. Please email me if you’d like any specific recipes or tips.

Produce no waste. A big meal means a lot of leftovers; and with lots of extra foods, it becomes easy for perfectly good stuff to end up going to waste. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but don’t throw any leftovers away. Not on Thanksgiving, not on Christmas, not on May 3rd, not on any day that ends in a ‘y’. Not ever.

It’s easy to find ways to make use of leftover food. Beyond the obvious “eating it as is over the next few days”, my family has a tradition of “after-Thanksgiving sandwiches”. You can also use the turkey bones to make soup and, of course, give any inedible vegetable scraps to the chickens or compost pile. Also, try to cook in reusable pie tins and turkey pans and the like, rather than those disposable aluminum ones.

Be thankful! As I said, Thanksgiving is a time to be conscious about the systems and beings that make our lives comfortable and give them meaning. Animals’ and plants’ lives are sacrificed to provide our bodies with nourishment. Farmers toil under the hot sun to grow quality food for our tables. The resilient, intricate, divine ecosystem provides for every living creature, and is capable of doing so forever. And the love of our friends, family, and community makes it all worth it. These are the things to be thankful for, the reasons for this great holiday, the gifts that we should consider when saying Grace.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.