Network Access

28 Jan 2008

To read a report of someone’s work is often like seeing pictures of food: it might peak the senses, or even stir up new levels of organoleptic imagination, but by the time you reach the last page you still have found no satiety in the consumption of paper. I am sometimes embarrassed by the academic fetish for text, and welcome opportunities that get beyond its singular dimension.

This was what Terra Madre 2006 was about: the world meeting of food communities — being together, face-to-face, talking, sharing stories, insights and experiences. Ways of communicating that are tried, true, and simple, yet so fast they outpace any fathomable technology.

At Terra Madre, I had the fortune of running into a chef from Kentucky named Bob Perry. Bob had run the food services for the entire Kentucky State Park System and make the products of local farmers the main attractions. He had recently moved on to the University of Kentucky to become Food Systems Coordinator for the University’s state-wide Local Foods Initiative, paying special attention to the University’s own food procurement.

Working with another Terra Madre chef delegate, Donna Prizgintas, we persuaded Iowa State University’s Dining Services to bring Bob out and to help sort out some logistical issues with our Farm to ISU Program. Donna hosted Bob at her house so that, in addition to our focused agenda, we could have a no-particular-agenda kind of exchange, like those that can happen at a good dinner party, where ideas and discussions flow and have time to mature organically.

Some ISU Dining staff and I had looked over Bob’s report on working for Kentucky State Park System, but it was the nitty-gritty details of institutional logistics that brought fire to the discussion – the kind of details that, like the odors of food, cannot be captured on the printed page; the insights of which might only relate to a certain terroir.

Bob illustrated the specifics of how to use every bit of a whole beef and make the flavor of fine local chickens stretch in soups rather than sandwiches. He stressed the importance of linkages between departments on campus to not only foster awareness about local foods, but also to involve many departments, not just dining services, in the promotion and creation of local food systems. He championed – like a good Slow Foodie – events that captured the sensual fun of agricultural products, not only their theoretical dimensions, such as monthly feasts featuring special local items or inviting local chefs to come into your dining halls to cook.

‘It’s not the easiest to get people to read reports around here,’ said Sue DeBlieck, Dining Services’ Farm to ISU Coordinator who arranged Bob’s visit and discussions with dining staff. ‘Our staff would prefer to talk and get immediate answers to questions from others who understand institutional dining. I’ve sent out quite a few e-mails overviewing projects at other universities and I’m pretty sure most people haven’t read them. Our staff really felt encouraged by Bob Perry’s visit.’

Bob’s visit to ISU was arranged to coincide with a meeting of universities across Iowa, as well as the University of Minnesota, focusing on how to coordinate and promote local food within institutions of higher learning. In both the discussion and the event evaluations, representatives from all the university and college dining services were interested in continuing to learn from one another’s farm to college programs and to have an annual local food procurement meeting. Another gathering is planed for next year.

Bob’s visit would not have been complete without a good feast. As the centerpiece, he brought the full shoulder of a rare Ossabaw hog cross that had been finished on acorns in the Appalachian hills of Eastern Kentucky. The Ossabaw, a cousin of the black Iberian pigs known for their divine dried hams, had a deep red flesh which, after a long, slow cooking, fell into tender pieces that glistened with its olive-oil-like fat – a result of its genetics and its acorn diet. It provided the good grease on which smooth conversation runs.

Bob Perry’s visit was the first among hopefully many visits that will benefit ISU through Slow Food’s Terra Madre Network. The visit was not expensive (cost of a plane ticket), nor terribly long (three days), but the value of the person-to-person exchange was immeasurably more than an academic paper, and, indeed, much more enjoyable.

Arion Thiboumery is a doctoral student at Iowa State University, USA, working to promote good, clean and fair agrifood systems in general, and small-scale butcher shops in particular

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