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Faith in Vermont: Some Thoughts on Food

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Posted on May 28, 2013 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



In my previous column, I confessed that what I missed most since moving to Vermont from California’s Bay Area were sidewalks.

If you asked my husband what he misses most since arriving in Vermont, he’d respond, “Food and produce.”

Don’t get me wrong: We eat quite well here. There are several large and well-stocked grocery stores, and many restaurants that range from adequate to exceptional. What my husband means is that you can’t compare the quality and variety of food and produce in small-town Vermont with what we’d been used to in Berkeley, California.

Berkeley is a city. The Bay Area houses immigrant communities from all over the world. And California, due to its size, topography, and climate, is an agricultural powerhouse where it’s possible to grow things like oranges, lemons, artichokes, and avocados virtually year-round. So when we went out to eat, it was easy to find authentic Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Afro-Caribbean cuisine. And when we went to the grocery store with the goal of buying seasonal produce, we were greeted by a wide variety of reasonably priced choices.

In contrast, if you’re looking for ethnic cuisine in our Vermont town, you’ll find one Thai restaurant, one Indian restaurant, and two Chinese restaurants serving Americanized Chinese food (deep-fried and swimming in thick sauces).

And should you enter one of our local grocery stores in search fruits and vegetables that haven’t been shipped in from South America or California – then summer and early fall are your best bets for fresh local corn, berries, apples, tomatoes, legumes, and squash. After the first frost, things start to get depressing. During the months when we seemed to subsist entirely on apples and potatoes, I suddenly understood why every local grocery store has a section devoted to canning.

So that’s the bad news: My husband misses fresh sushi and year-round strawberries at less than $6 a pint. And because of Vermont’s population and topography and climate, it’s unlikely that either of those things will change radically.

Now for some good news: If you can make peace with Vermont’s sparse ethnic cuisine and dramatic seasonal fluctuations in produce, there are some features of life here that more than compensate for any deficiencies.

1. Proximity to farms.In California we were within walking distance of Peruvian food, but we’d have to drive an hour or more to see an actual farm. Now we have to drive an hour or more for ethnic food, but we’re within walking distance of the farm that supplies us with fresh weekly produce for five months of the year. We drive mere minutes to reach our favorite apple orchard and blueberry patch. As a result, our girls know where their food comes from; they know what grows on a bush, a vine, or under the earth, and they can give you an earful on their favorite varieties of apple (Ginger Gold and Honey Crisp).

2. Regional specialties.It’s hard to beat Vermont when it comes to maple syrup and dairy products. Having lived here for two years, my daughters are already maple syrup snobs; do NOT tell them that a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s is “maple syrup” – they’ll have none of it.

As for cheese, our family’s current favorite is Cabot’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar. I’ve been surprised that our three girls all agree on their love for a cheese which, as its name suggests, is not for the faint of heart. But it seems that my daughters aren’t the only Vermont children who like a strong cheese. This winter, while serving lunch to my two-year-old and her friend, I gave them some generic mozzarella string cheese that went untouched. Then I brought out a few slices of the Seriously Sharp Cheddar. “Oh!” exclaimed my daughter’s friend, her eyes lighting up in recognition, “CHEESE!”

Sheesh, I thought, guess I can’t pass off inferior cheese on these Vermont kids.

3. Food pride. During a single week this spring, two friends shared food-related articles on Facebook that made me proud to be a Vermonter.

The first was an article on the NPR website, announcing that Vermont had placed first in the nation on the 2013 Strolling of the Heifers Locavore index, which rates each state according to the number of its farmers markets, CSA projects, and “food hubs.” Vermont may have limited local food options during the winter months, but I’m proud to live in a state that’s so committed to supporting its own agriculture.

Next came an article from RT USA, which featured the attention-grabbing headline: “Monsanto threatens to sue the entire state of Vermont” (Facebook comment from a non-Vermonter: “The entire state of Vermont? Isn’t that, like, two people?”). Turns out that the agricultural company Monsanto was angry over Vermont’s proposed state bill H-722, which would require manufacturers to label products that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I know this is a complicated issue, and I’m no expert on GMOs. But back in California I shared an office for several years with a woman who worked for an anti-GMO lobbying group, and I remember her slamming down the phone frequently, followed by angry exclamations that paired “Monsanto” with various unprintable phrases. So you’ll understand if I see Monsanto as a bit of an evil empire, and feel proud to live in a little state that would risk making it angry.

I suppose the bottom line is that there’s no perfect place to live; you’re always forced to make trade-offs. Next week is the second anniversary of our family’s move to Vermont, and we agree that we’d happily swap the sushi (and the sidewalks) for the delights of living here.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, three young daughters (with another on the way), one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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