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Local Food and 'Not Taking the Easy Way Out'

by on January 29, 2014 10:30 AM

Sometimes you hear something that so perfectly crystallizes your beliefs and you wonder why you didn't think of it yourself.

In this case, full credit goes to Duke Gastiger, owner of Spats, who told a crowd of local food lovers that "Community is not taking the easy way out."

He spoke those words at Sunday's "Local on the Menu" Friends & Farmers Cooperative fundraiser, which brought together community members who are already familiar with the concept of "not taking the easy way out" when it comes to their food.

Whether that means paying for a farm share or making an extra trip to the farmers market for those beautiful, orange-yolk eggs, we invest in local food because it's good for our bodies, our taste buds — and our communities.

In Duke's case, he was talking specifically about investing in the local farming community. As owner of Spats Café & Speakeasy, a restaurant specializing in Cajun and Creole dishes, he cooks with a lot of okra. Two years ago, he noted, the heat-loving pods weren't even grown in this area. Today, every bowl of Spats jambalaya and gumbo is made with locally grown okra. From May to November, the collard greens are local, too.

Duke certainly didn't take the easy way out when he agreed to host Sunday's sold-out Friends & Farmers fundraising dinner. He lovingly and enthusiastically created a "hometown" menu sourced from 18 local farmers, ranchers and producers. The food looked good, tasted even better, and told a story about its creation.

A card next to each dish noted its source. From the Tamarack Farm Lamb Sliders to the Jade Family Farm Napa Cabbage & Vegetable Rice Paper Spring Rolls, the dishes were some of the best I have ever tasted in a State College restaurant. As a Friends & Farmers board member who helped plan the event, I'm admittedly biased — but similar rave reviews confirm that I'm not delusional.

As Friends & Farmers gets ready to launch its membership campaign, we are fortunate to have chefs like Duke on our side. Back in December, another locally minded chef, Andrew Monk, created his own delicious version of a local food meal at a Friends & Farmers meet and greet at Whiskers. (It's worth noting that these chefs pulled off both events in winter, proving false the idea that you can't serve a delicious, locally grown meal year-round in Central PA.)

Monk, executive chef at The Nittany Lion Inn, didn't take the easy way out when he fried kale stems or made local beet-infused gin cocktails. (After the cocktail experiment left him looking like a victim in a bad horror flick, he wisely changed his chef whites.)

Beet cocktails are fun, but Monk isn't merely riding a food trend: "The local food movement is beyond a marketing gimmick," he says, "but a reality that needs to be fulfilled — for taste, for health, and for the prosperity and resilience of our individual community."

As word gets out that Friends & Farmers throws a great local food party, we hope that the memorable dishes remind people that we don't have to take the easy way when it comes to our food. Sure, I bring non-local banana bread to our board meetings and make my kids frozen pizzas so I can actually make it to those meetings, but the point isn't about what we don't do. It's the small and big steps we take to participate in a consumer experience that doesn't rely on tractor-trailers or shelf-extending preservatives.

In March Friends & Farmers is launching a membership campaign that will allow you to become an owner in a grocery store that feeds our community, by stocking produce and products grown and prepared right here in Happy Valley. Come out to our Membership Kick-Off Celebration at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County (UUFCC) on Sunday, March 2 from 3-6 p.m. to get more information, become a member and own a piece of this revolution.

There's an alternative to the corporate industrial food system, but it won't be delivered by a traditional corporation. Our farmers have done their best to make local food available. The rest is up to us.

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Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at mitchmarchetti@gmail.com
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