Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

The church of local food

A religious experience at Wordstock

November 13, 2008

He had such kind eyes. Not the eyes of an imperious chef. And I, who had never eaten in his restaurant but felt that I knew him and his oeuvre so well, had made one of those connections that an audience member can sometimes make with a speaker. I know this because when I speak, I find them, someone whose gaze is comfortable to meet. A simple understanding: one is there to listen, the other to hold forth, and both of you are in the same room, metaphysically speaking as well as, yes, literally.

Despite my eagerness to hear his point of view on a hundred topics, we kept missing. I would ask a question and someone else on the panel would answer, then he would be cut off by the moderator before he could add his response, leaning forward and opening his mouth only to close it again. I sighed to myself. Here he was in this room with me — Vitaly Paley! — and I wasn’t able to hear his thoughts on how to write about local, seasonal food so that a book audience, fed through the filter of book editors and publishers, could sup.

The next questioner stood up. She was larger than life, with an enormous red scarf and many hand gestures. She had a question that wound its way along, scattering opinions and generalizations as it searched for the point: “It seems that the way to get a book published is to find a hook, a trend, a gimmick . . . I mean, no offense, but ‘local and seasonal’ is the latest fad. What is it going to be next?”

I may not have all the words right, but I remember specifically that she called local food a gimmick. A trend. A fad.

Gene Thiel, carrot genius.

I must have reacted physically, almost jumping out of my seat in horror. While she was looking to find the next mania, I was roiling. Imagine if you are a devout Roman Catholic and some person you do not know calls the sacrament of holy communion a schtick. Or something. Local and seasonal a gimmick? No!

After nearly a year of faithfulness to eating food that is local, sustainably grown, seasonal, real, I’ve come to believe that it is not at all a trend, it is a Way. The way food always was, until industrialization and cheap oil screwed it up. The way food has to be, or we will be destroyed. I wanted to say all this to her. Loudly.

Vitaly Paley — who without knowing it and almost without my realization has quietly and passionately been creating a lovely, delicious path for us here in the Pacific Northwest for 20 years in his restaurant, Paley's Place, and now in his cookbook, The Paley’s Place Cookbook — jumped too. He grabbed the mike and said it: Local food is not a gimmick. Local food is the natural and only possible end to our road. Local and seasonal is where we’re going. Local and seasonal has always been, and someday we will get together over winter stews of celeriac and heirloom cannellini beans and Brussels sprouts and we will laugh at the very idea of a fresh raspberry tart with almonds for dessert. Ha ha ha! So silly.

When the Wordstock panel of cookbook authors had concluded, I spoke for a while to the amazing woman with a name like mine, Sarah Hart of Alma Chocolates, Sarah who did not make her amazing figs stuffed with blue cheese and dipped in chocolate in the summer because figs were out of season. She too was a believer.

I went to the cookbook aisle and I gazed and the wonderment of Paley’s book, I almost cried when I saw the portrait of wrinkled local carrot genius Gene Thiel, I closed the book and brushed my hand over it ever so gently.

I could not afford Paley’s book. I had spent all my cash at the farmers’ market the day before. But I did have Ivy Manning’s book, The Farm to Table Cookbook, and Paley had recipes in it, so I got signatures from the two of them, and I told Paley and his wife that I agreed, that I believed in them, not as prophets so much as passionate missionaries spreading the good news of the church of local food.

Perhaps we are zealots, but I believe that the eternal life of our food system is through local and seasonal and sustainably grown food. I believe this in a way that is both religious and mixed up in religion; I think of the land flowing with milk and honey, I pray for more converts every night before bed, I tithe (and then some) in the farmers’ market, I thank the good lord for the red winter kale and garlic he has provided us.

And I pray for the food soul of that woman in the red scarf. May God richly bless her with potatoes, leeks, and Oregonzola. Amen.

There are 3 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by giovannaz on Nov 13, 2008 at 3:50 PM PST

Thanks, Sarah, for writing this--I was there as well, and was also surprised by this question--and pleased by Paley’s response. Equating eating seasonally and locally with pursuing a lo-carb diet or arranging foods vertically on a plate seems, well, at best uninformed.

2. by jane on Nov 14, 2008 at 8:19 AM PST

I love the photo of the carrot guy. I regularly scan his table for funky-shaped veggies. I bought a lovely set of twisted-together carrots, one white, one orange, and wrote a poem about them. I’d promised the carrot guy to give him a copy. I never did. But tomorrow, I plan to do just that.

I was in the room, too. I don’t think local and seasonal is a fad. But I do think we’ll find new ways to talk about it. And hopefully, figure out better way for everyone, not just people with money, to eat it.

3. by Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen on Nov 19, 2008 at 4:21 PM PST

Local and seasonal isn’t any more a gimmick than eating daily is. We all get to choose what we put in our mouths, so why not choose what’s freshest and hopefully most delicious?

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Our Table

Joy of Cooking app

A new tool for the kitchen

The latest in our collection of cooking apps.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice