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The Vermont Food Experience


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The Vermont Food Experience

IrnScrabbleChf52 | Jun 27, 2010 08:42 AM

Here are my thoughts on farm-to-table eating in Vermont:

Vermont is where farm-to-table kitsch comes to die.

In New York City, restaurants oftentimes emphasize their connection to local markets; they are “market restaurants,” “farm-to-table,” or participate in “sustainable foodways.” Still, eating fresh produce sequestered in a metropolitan fortress of steel and concrete feels disingenuous. Knowing the name of the farm that grew those ramps or raised that rabbit means little without context. A name is only a name when stripped of the named object. So we go to the farms, the creameries, the foragers, and the fishermen, seeking the intrinsic narratives of the food we consume. So we go to Vermont.

Unlike in the East Village, in Vermont one gains the opportunity to look out a restaurant’s window and see the land, the crops, to meet the people who work those fields and learn their stories. At Hen of the Wood, Chef-Owner Eric Warnstedt, one of Food & Wine‘s Best New Chefs of 2008, attempts to fulfill that fantasy. Located in a venerable grist mill, Hen of the Wood offers a menu that gestures towards the farm-to-table experience. Many of the vegetables hail from nearby farms, but on this past Wednesday’s menu only the rabbit clearly came from the Green Mountain State. Gazing over the waterfall, one might pretend that a silky salmon fillet powered a fish up those rocks hours before. Such fictions contribute to the “farm-to-table” kitsch so evident in the big city; a theme park of sustainability that sacrifices local vision for price point, quality, convenience, practicality, and the bounds of mere possibility.

Where then does Vermont meet or even generate a real farm-to-table ethos? At Cabot Creamery, a dairy cooperative sources milk from Vermont cows and pumps out thousands of pounds of cheese. Gloriously rubbery and indistinct, Cabot’s factory product tastes of, well, the mechanized and futurized factory: devoid of soul. Yet, Cabot’s clothbound cheddar feels authentically Vermont: twangy, crumbly, and tinged with caramel and walnut flavors that resonate insistently on the tongue in a slowly diffusing golden glow. Cave aged at Jasper Hill Farm, Cabot’s clothbound cheddar represents a fusion of mass production and local production, a global-local cooperative that seems satisfying on pragmatic, ethical, and gustatory levels.

After Cabot, I craved a nonindustrial food experience though, a gastronomic landscape without sales figures or marketing or automation. Stumbling into a hidden town in the Vermont hills, somewhere between Cabot and Stowe, I found lunch at the Buffalo Mountain Coop, a funky grocery store and cafe. Hardwick, Vermont exists humbly, quietly, an amateur boxing club, two grocery stores, a gas station with old-fashioned pumps. Buffalo Mountain Coop serves “food for people not for profit.”

Following a simple lunch of turkey on wheat with mesclun and mustard, I perused the grocery. Strange legumes and esoteric dietary supplements line the walls. There’s a grind your own peanut butter machine. For dinner, I picked a loaf from Bohemian Bread, locally grown cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes, and figured a sizable chunk of that clothbound cheddar would round out the meal nicely.

Of course, the local foods manifesto has been discussed and spread thin across internet and print media. I have little of particular note to add beyond a finger wag towards pragmatics. I will, however, emphasize how delicious that cheddar tasted on that bread. Bubbly, airy, yeasty, and soft on the interior and suitably crunchy along the crust, the Bohemian Bread took well to its cheesy companion, allowing the almost crunchy, crystalline cheddar to burrow into its most intimate pockets. It would be a good life to eat such bread and such cheese.

Ultimately, I believe that the difference between farm-to-table kitsch and farm-to-table authenticity lies in the distinctions between fantasy and reality. Kitsch relies on the customer’s desire to engage in an imaginative game that simultaneously comforts the ethical self and transports the childlike self. Eating cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, or Cabot Creamery for that matter, means little in New York City, removed from any original context. Other than the bare knowledge that one supports a particular farm, understanding the provenance of a product holds no inherent value. Comprehending the reality of the land, watching fields turn into pine-covered mountains that arch unbearably into fog and clouds, and then eating that cheese on bread and knowing the people that live in the hills and drive beyond the sky—that learning possesses an inherent value. Vermont, its food, its people: these can only be known here, in this place. A fantasy of the local gone global denies the very existence of an underlying reality, commodifying a hyperreality for consumption.

For a post on the Cabot factory with pictures:

Jasper Hill Farm
Greensboro, VT, Greensboro, VT

Hen of the Wood
92 Stowe St Ste 1, Waterbury, VT 05676

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