Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Obligatory Best-of-2010 Post

Following in the footsteps of last week's obligatory resolutions post, here are some lists of my favorite/best/weirdest/etc. 2010 food things. (By the way, do you have plans for NYE yet? Here's one more plug for what's sure to be a ridiculously awesome live music experience.) 

My favorite restaurant discoveries in 2010:
  • Highland Kitchen (blog posts here and here): A fairly easy walk from my apartment, Highland Kitchen is my new favorite neighborhood spot. Everything I've eaten here has been good to great, the cocktails are interesting and strong, and the ambiance is fun and lively. I've still gotta make it to a Tuesday night Spelling Bee.
  • Trina's Starlite Lounge: Hot dogs hot dogs hot dogs. Trina's feels like the same genre as Highland Kitchen to me; I guess they both fit into the fast emerging gastro-pub scene, or at least the outskirts of it. In any case, I love them both.
  • KO Catering and Pies (blog post here): The first legit Australian place in Boston (that I know of). (Outback Steakhouse doesn't count. At all.) Meat pies and sausage rolls will make winter bearable.
  • Marliave: I can't remember when I first went here - might have been last year, actually - but I'll include it anyway. A lot of people find the ambiance a bit run-down, but hey, it's historical. The upstairs dining room is lovely when the candles are lit. This is one of my favorite French onion soups I've ever had, and the cocktails are amazing. Happy Hour oyster specials on the patio make for a heavenly summer night.
  • Ronnarong (blog post here): This discovery also might be more than a year old; I just can't remember. Great sake-based cocktails, wonderful Thai small plates. Absolutely try the Paradise Beef.
  • Rangzen (blog post here): A Tibetan gem tucked away on a Central Square side street.
  • Baraka Cafe (blog post here): Another Central Square gem, hidden even further from the main drag, Baraka Cafe offers delicious North African food in a somewhat-tacky-yet-beautiful ambiance, served up with a bit of attitude that'll make you cringe or smile depending on your temperament.
  • Newtowne Grille: A great neighborhood dive-y place in Porter Square for super cheap pizza, apps, and beer. And the pizza is GREAT. My pizza snob boyfriend agrees and considers it one of the best in Boston.

My favorite food shop discoveries in 2010:
  • The Chocolate Tarte (blog post here): The ultimate winner of my Cupcake Quest, The Chocolate Tarte is (un?)fortunately walking distance from my apartment. Not only are the cupcakes the best in the world - everything else is also delicious. I can't stop raving about this place to everyone.
  • Russo's: This somewhat satisfies the hole in my heart that Wegmans filled when I lived in Rochester, and it also satisfies any need I may have to find any exotic fruit or vegetable in the entire world. Russo's is a mad house at peak hours - be prepared to shove and be shoved by shopping carts and hungry shoppers - and there aren't really local or organic options - but wow, the produce is cheap and exotic. Whenever I go here, I leave with vegetables I've never heard of. Love it.
  • Savenor's (blog post here): Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my! Well, I haven't seen tiger there, but I'm pretty sure I've seen bear, and they had lion at $40/lb a couple weeks ago. The famous Savenor's (a favorite of Julia Child) is the best source for exotic meats for miles around. Yep, it's expensive, but for a once-in-awhile treat, the quality and selection are spectacular.

My favorite food truck discoveries of 2010:
  • Fillbelly's (blog post here): I've sadly only found the truck once, but I've been searching for it ever since. I want another bosilito (empanada) so, so badly.
  • Clover (blog post here): A food truck that destroys the notion that food trucks are greasy and unhealthy. Pretty neat.

Blog posts I had the most fun writing in 2010:

Things I've spent way too much time on in please check them out so I feel validated:
  • The Economics of Local Food: This is the capstone project for my master's degree. It consumed my life for many months, so I hope you'll find it interesting and educational. While I would have liked to submit it somewhere for publication, stories about local food are getting a bit overdone, so I never bothered. Instead, I posted it here on a whim a few weeks ago because it seemed like a waste not to share it.
  • This is a recent project and a major work-in-progress, but I'm hoping that it'll become a useful resource for food bloggers throughout Massachusetts. Many of you have already checked it out and responded enthusiastically, so thank you all very much for the support and kind words! Many new features will be rolling out as time goes on, but the fact remains that I have a time-and-brain-consuming day job as well as a "secret life" as a musician and photographer, so sometimes the food stuff falls behind. The launch party will be held on January 17th; I'm excited!

Weirdest search phrases that sent people to my blog in 2010 (via Google Analytics):
  • "mixing pepto bismol and baking soda"
  • "a nice mohito to oblivion." 
  • "abstract of ham fork"
  • "cake surrounded by cupcake"
  • "creamsicle wimp"
  • "frusting in love distance"
  • "kelly brook breast size"
  • "my thighs boston" 
  • "one day unhappy in hell you can cry like a baby"
  • "over in boston they have no more to write about, it's more like a sing a long"
  • "psycho knives"
  • "through the eyes of the smoke monster"
  • "what is a hairkee"

My favorite bits of Internet fame:
  • I snapped a cell phone pic of one of the Public Garden Make Way For Ducklings statues, which had been vandalized one morning. I tweeted the picture with a note about how "some jerk had graffiti-ed the ducks, and it was retweeted - I think by Universal Hub, initially - and soon the story (and my ugly cell phone pic) was all over the local news. I blogged about it here in an essay about the gray areas between citizen journalism, traditional journalism, and blogging.
  • I was surprised and honored to find my blog among five mentioned in this Boston Globe article criticizing review sites like Yelp but calling attention to "talented civilian reviewers who outgrow review sites."  

Ok, I think that's enough for now. Have a safe and happy New Year's Eve - whether debaucherous, extravagant, relaxing, or otherwise - and I'll be a couple days. Not gonna make the cliched joke.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Social Gastronomic Half-Life

so·cial gas·tro·nom·ic half-life (noun)
[soh-shuhl gas-truh-nom-ik haf-lahyf]
A term describing the fate of a last bite of a shared appetizer as it is seemingly infinitely halved by diners embarrassed to be the one to finish it off.
Friends Sarah E. and Josh G. collaboratively coined this while we were at Highland Kitchen the other night. I have previously blogged about Highland Kitchen, which is one of my absolute favorite new-ish discoveries, especially since I can walk there, but this was the first time I had tried their Buffalo-fried Brussels sprouts. Wow. Crispy and green on the inside; crispy and Buffalo wing-y on the outside. (It tasted like the classic Frank's Red Hot-and-butter hot sauce. Well done, Highland Kitchen, well done.)

Anyway, as the last bite got progressively smaller and smaller and we all cast sideways glances at it, weighing our options, Joel swooped in and finished it. "I'm not afraid to be the asshole so none of you have to," he explained. This phrase also came up last week when Joel, my roommate Deb, and I had a traditional Jewish dinner on Christmas Eve at Peach Farm in Chinatown. Come to think of it, this happens quite often when dining with Joel.

After the last bit of Brussels sprouts disappeared forever into Joel's stomach, we discussed the social phenomenon of how (most) people don't want to be the one to take the last bite, and social gastronomic half-life was born.

Are you like Joel? Do you claim to save everyone else the awkwardness by being the jerk who takes the last bite? Do you carefully take a mini-bite, leaving an increasingly minuscule bit on the plate? Or do you politely refrain altogether once the appetizer reaches a critical minimum, all the while wishing that someone would just insist that you eat it?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

KO Catering and Pies: A Brekky with Bloggers

I've had a strange koala obsession for quite some time. Here I am in 2005 getting super excited to see the koalas at the Cleveland Zoo:

...and here I am a few minutes later, pretending to be a koala in front of the real koalas:

One day, I learned about the terrifying drop bear, the man-eating (mythical) larger cousin of the koala, and my obsession grew.

With a koala obsession comes an Australia obsession, naturally. It's been on my list of top dream travel destinations for awhile. But now that KO Catering and Pies exists, I can get a little taste of Australia right here in Boston!

KO Catering and Pies is located just minutes from the Broadway T-stop, an area that I don't visit often - or at all, really - so when I saw that the December Boston Brunchers event would be taking place there, I figured it'd be a great opportunity to check it out.

The shop is absolutely adorable, with much more class than most take-out joints. (There's a small communal table and counter area for eating in, if you can get a spot, but the focus is really on take-out.)

Australian goodies for sale

Lovely ceramic bird decoration

Pie Time is undoubtedly the best time zone in the world.
While KO is quickly building a reputation around their meat pies, there's much more to the menu. We were provided with a meal of our choice from the "brekky" menu.

First, we were given a delicious toast...topped with Vegemite.

Way back in my Girl Scout days - I was a star cookie seller, by the way! - we went on an overnight jamboree type of thing with other local troops, and there was an international theme, so we were all assigned a country and told to bring a snack representing that country. (I brought Nilla Wafers, but I don't remember what country that was supposed to represent.) My friend Nancy was assigned Australia, and she brought Vegemite. The troop leader forced us all to try it on crackers, and I'm pretty sure we all spit it out right away.

Fast forward to brunch at KO. Maybe my palate has matured, I thought, taking a big bite of toast. Nope...still not my thing. It's very, very salty...almost like a thick soy sauce...and it just doesn't do it for me. But the bread was delicious!

Anyway, onto the rest of the food! I got the herbed potato rosti (like a latke, but BETTER! Did you know that was possible? I didn't!) with slow roasted tomato, bacon, and fried egg. Delicious all around. Others tried the croque madame, croque monsieur, and sweet potato fritters.

Even better than a latke. Really.

croque madame
 Then, just as we were all groaning in satisfaction and slipping into food comas, we were given sausage rolls. Indulgent and filling, these could probably be a meal on their own!

We were also left with some Aussie treats and instructions for the proper eating of a meat pie.

There was no way I could leave KO empty-handed; I needed a meat pie! I purchased a meat pie and sausage roll to bring home and share with Joel...or devour single-handedly.

As always, it was an absolute pleasure to see old blogger friends and meet new ones!

Back row, left to right: Forays of a Finance Foodie, The Small Boston Kitchen, Eat.Live.Blog/Boston Brunchers, Indulge Inspire Imbibe, Ancient Fire Wine Blog, Free Food Boston; front row, left to right: Lighter and Local and me.
Although KO Catering and Pies is located in a neighborhood outside of my typical travels, it was actually easy to get to since it's just minutes from the T. I foresee many meat pies helping me through the winter!

Follow KO Catering and Pies on Facebook and Twitter.
Follow Boston Brunchers on Facebook and Twitter.

KO Catering and Pies on Urbanspoon

Disclaimer: Boston Brunchers and KO Catering and Pies hosted a contest to gain admission to this brunch. The meal was provided free of charge, and I purchased additional items to take home. Regardless of cost or lack thereof, all opinions in this blog post and everywhere else on this blog are my full and honest opinion.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Obligatory New Year's Resolutions Post

Usually I don't write posts like this - I don't often make resolutions beyond the generic "I'm going to exercise more this year!" and "I'm going to procrastinate less!" - but this year I have a few resolutions that are more specific and (hopefully) attainable. By sharing them here, I'm hoping that people will actually hold me accountable for them. (So if, for example, you spot me taking the escalator at the Porter T station, feel free to yell at me. But make sure you know it's actually me, or it'll be an awkward situation for everyone involved.)

Resolution #1: Kickbox.
Awhile ago, I tried out a few classes at the gym where Joel kickboxes - Redline Fight Sports - and I enjoyed them. In fact, the last time I was there (a month or two ago, maybe) I actually bought a pass to attend ten classes, none of which I have attended yet. In an effort to get in shape and not waste the money I already spent, I will attend at least one class per week. At this rate, I should be done with my class pass by mid-March, at which point I'll decide whether or not to buy more classes - or a membership - or try out a different gym.

Resolution #2: Stop being lazy at Porter.
On a typical weekday, I tend to find myself leaving the Porter T station at least once, sometimes twice. There are a lot of stairs. I almost always take the escalator. Unless I'm carrying a lot of heavy stuff or wearing uncomfortable shoes, there's really no excuse not to trudge up the stairs, especially during rush hour when there's actually a line to get on the escalator. A line. For the escalator. I feel like a lazy sheep when I stand in line. In 2011, I will take the stairs for at least half of my trips out of the Porter station and all of my trips out of other stations. By March, I should be taking the stairs all of the time. After that, I'll start tackling the eight flights up to my office. (I'll continue taking the escalator down into the station, though. On a busy weekday morning, I enjoy the minute and a half of nothingness that standing on the long escalator provides, busy people rushing past me hoping to not have to wait the extra two or three minutes for the next train if they miss this one.)  

Resolution #3: Tackle the cookbook pile.
Over the last few months, I've accumulated a lot of new cookbooks. Some have been sent to me for review purposes, others I've bought for myself, and others have been given as gifts. I've barely had a chance to try them out. Starting in January, I will make at least one somewhat elaborate meal a week from my stack of new cookbooks.

Resolution #4: Bring lunch.
I started my current job in early September, and I have not brought lunch a single time. I've subsisted on cafeteria food and a rotation of Longwood's limited fast food options, particularly Au Bon Pain and Boloco. There's no reason I can't go to Shaw's on Sundays and prepare lunch for at least Monday and Tuesday. I will bring lunch to work at least twice a week from now on.

Alright, I think that's all for the moment, but I might come up with a few more in the coming days. What are your resolutions? Do you go all out and come up with extraordinary resolutions that you're unlikely to keep, or do you keep it moderate and choose things you might actually be able to do? I think that each of these resolutions is reasonable and do-able, so we'll see what happens.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A New Year's Eve Carnival of Awesomeness

I've received a ton of press releases from restaurants about their New Year's Eve menus. I don't know about you, but I have no interest in paying a ridiculous sum of money for a fancy, romantic dinner-for-two on NYE. I'd rather have a cheap, fun evening with some of my favorite people/bands in Boston. So, no food in this post...just music! (I think the phrase "Fork it over, Boston!" can apply to entertainment as well as food. I guess the scope of this blog is slowly expanding to include taking advantage of any awesomeness that Boston offers.)

Do you have plans for New Year's Eve yet? Looking for a night of carnivalesque dancing, music, and other ridiculously awesome gender-bending and mind-bending entertainment? A little bit of boyfriend-promotional spam: Joel's band, the Somerville Symphony Orkestar, is going to be playing as part of Walter Sickert's SteamCRUNK Lounge at Hynes Convention Center for First Night Boston. (Get more info on the Facebook event page.) Other performers include Dezrah the Strange ("an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things"), Madge of Honor ("drag royalty, burlesque creepiness, artsy performance art, wild variety, and ensemble work"), Johnny Blazes ("draws from hir training in theater, dance and opera to create a graceful clowning style that incorporates drag, burlesque and circus arts to create works that defy categorization"), Trabants ("a groovy collective performing the finest in dusty 60's surf music and assorted obscure gems"), Meff 'n JoJo's Tiny Instrument Revue ("retrosexual, Jewy vaudeville, wicked queer, euphemnuendo ukulele, mininstruments 'n mandolin"), and of course Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys ("musically sophisticated Dada-esque circus carnival run amuck"...and Boston Music Awards Live Artist of the Year nominee!). Buy your First Night button here - only $15 if you buy online ($18 at retail locations), and it gets you into a whole day's worth of First Night entertainment spread throughout the city.

Throughout the last year, I've had the pleasure of falling into Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys' trippy rabbit hole on several occasions - Joel's band has played with them before, and my band played with them a couple months ago. Sometimes we even get a little Monday night serenade from them; they actually practice right across the street from Joel's apartment, and on a quiet night we can hear them clearly. This is the type of strangely-clothed self-confidently weird group that you laugh at in high school while secretly fearing/admiring them and kind of wishing you could be friends with them. They are really not to be missed. Take a little trip into Boston's carnival music scene and you'll never look back. Some photos to give you a glimpse of the craziness:

Joel's band is slightly less trippy but a whole lot of fun. On the First Night site, they're described as "a carnivalized punk show that turns its audiences into equal parts mosh-pit and horah", and that's pretty accurate. Have you heard Gogol Bordello? The Somerville Symphony Orkestar fits into a similar genre: punk with Eastern European influences. You'll hear elements of Klezmer and Balkan themes wrapped in an instrumental punk package, and it'll be hard not to dance. A couple photos from past shows:

Dave plays the amazing trump-bone.
I was somehow conned into dancing around in the elephant costume, which has a major lack of breathing holes. What's with the elephant? Well, you'll have to come to the show and see for yourself.
Plus, the SSO will be selling merchandise for the first time ever. This is your chance to get your hands on awesome shirts and shot glasses:

It's an unshowered sort of Sunday, so here's the shirt wrinkled haphazardly on a table rather than on me. They look awesome in real life!

So, what are your NYE plans? (Here's that First Night link again in case you want to buy buttons!)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cupcake Quest: Au Bon Pain

This post is part of the Cupcake Quest series on Fork it over, Boston!

Had Au Bon Pain offered cupcakes seven months ago, the Cupcake Quest may never have begun. That's not a comment on their quality - they're pretty good, but not the winners of my quest - but the immediate gratification would have prevented the idea of a quest from forming that one afternoon back at Pearson.

The Cupcake Quest began in the following manner, which is also described on the main Quest page:
One day, my coworkers and I had a sudden craving for cupcakes around 3pm. We had already taken a long lunch, so we resisted the urge to go on an expedition, but the craving kept coming back nearly every day around the same time, stronger and stronger. Finally, the Cupcake Quest was born.
Au Bon Pain was a short walk from my old office - in fact, I ate there almost daily - so you see, our cupcake craving would have been immediately quenched and we may never have become so obsessed. Alas, Au Bon Pain didn't introduce cupcakes until recently.

As luck would have it, there's also an Au Bon Pain very near my new workplace. I've cut back to getting lunch there once or twice a week instead of every day. Apparently daily tomato soup binges can bring about heartburn.

On a long afternoon a couple weeks ago, I grabbed my soup and decided, with a sigh, that the Cupcake Quest must continue when I find myself staring at untasted cupcakes. Au Bon Pain has three kinds: double chocolate, French vanilla, and red velvet. I was about to grab the red velvet when I noticed the calorie counts staring me in the face. (How's that for appetizing?) Double chocolate - 320 calories. French vanilla - 350 calories. Red velvet - 400 calories. Knowing that I'd be trying Mix Bakery cupcakes at the Signpost launch party later that evening, I went for the "healthiest" choice, double chocolate.

The Verdict: Not bad, Au Bon Pain, not bad at all. I always feel a little uncomfortable praising gigantic food chains, but I've always been pretty pleased with Au Bon Pain's baked goods, and this is no exception. (Oh yeah, I like the various tomato soups too. Probably too much.) (Also, Au Bon Pain was founded in Boston, so even though it's around the world now, it has local ties.) The cake part of this cupcake had the kind-of-light, kind-of-cakey taste that you get from a boxed cake mix, and the frosting was luxuriously rich. The cute little chocolate shavings on top were a nice touch. Au bon...petit g√Ęteau!  

Note: This review is for the Au Bon Pain in the lobby of Children's Hospital Boston (300 Longwood Ave).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Event Recap: Catching (Up With) Slow Food

December 2 was a busy evening of grilled cheese, slow food, and awesome music.

Willow Blish
Sandwiched in between the cheesy goodness and the loud fun, I attended an event at WorkBar organized by EFactor; it was a panel discussion on building a sustainable business in the food industry. It was nice to run into another food blogger there whom I had yet to meet - Nikki of art & lemons (which, by the way, is full of gorgeous photography. Check it out!). The discussion was led by Willow Blish of Slow Food Boston, and the panelists were Jennifer and Julia Frost of Chive Events, Valerie Conyngham of vianne chocolate, JD Kemp of Crop Circle Kitchen and Organic Renaissance, and Mike Raymond of First Light Farm. The discussion focused on three questions: What is sustainability? Why would a business choose to be sustainable? What are the challenges when starting a sustainable business? All panelists provided a variety of interesting views.

Jennifer Frost
Julia Frost
Jennifer and Julia (Chive Events) spoke of using "beautiful food" from "local sources" to cater their events; they aim to make their business sustainable from beginning to end. Jennifer had prior experience with catering companies and was appalled at how much food was simply thrown away after events. By composting and recycling, they ensure that there is no waste after their events. All billing is done by email to avoid wasting paper, and they use materials with a low environmental impact.

Valerie Conyngham
Valerie (vianne chocolate) spoke of how building a sustainable business was mainly a marketing decision; the competition wasn't going the sustainable route. While she buys locally as much as possible, there are some materials and supplies that she gets from farther away for economic or other reasons. Spices come from Christina's, though, and cream and most of her butter come from the Dairy Bar. Where Jennifer and Julia have thrown themselves completely into sustainability, Valerie has taken a more moderate approach, one that is perhaps easier for many of us to use as inspiration. Making sustainable choices is wonderful when possible, but making a living is important as well, and sometimes your business choices have to support you before supporting your philosophy.

JD Kemp
JD, who was unfortunately seated in the blinding light of the projector, resulting in this somewhat creepy (but kind of cool, yes?) portrait to the left, spoke of his newest endeavor, FoodEx, an alternative method of food distribution that addresses current gaps in the system. Kemp's company is basically a middleman helping local farms and producers get their goods to the consumers without wasting valuable time trucking everything around themselves, and the process is as transparent as possible, with the cost to producers coming only from the food miles. (This article from the Jamaica Plain Patch goes into more detail.) "People think we're crazy," JD said. "I think that's a good sign."

Mike Raymond
Mike provided a farmer's prospective and talked of his goal to remain small in order to stay flexible. His reasons for building a sustainable business include not wanting to poison the land and not exploiting labor, hidden costs of mass production. He is very enthusiastic about CSAs; you can learn more about First Light Farm's CSA programs (and CSAs in general) on the farm's website.

Overall, it was an interesting discussion. The question "What is sustainability?" yielded the predictable lack of a clear definition, just like the related "What is local food?" Everyone had different reasons for building a sustainable business, but many of the challenges are shared.

After the talk, I got a chance to try one of Valerie's pumpkin chocolates. Yum!  I actually ran into her at an event a week or so later and bought a small box of chocolates, so I'll post a review on that soon.

After the event, I hurried over to the Middle East (downstairs) and arrived just in time to see a couple of my bandmates, Michael J. Epstein and Sophia Cacciola, in one of their other projects, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, a musical homage to 60s spy show The Prisoner. In the second song, Michael somehow managed to break not one but TWO bass strings. That's how hard these guys rock.

A couple more photos from the show:

Quite the night!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Giveaway Winner, Upcoming Product Review, and More

Ugh, I don't like writing posts like this. In the near future, I think I'd like to take a step back from these product reviews and giveaways, and just get back into writing about food for the love of food. But due to prior obligations, here we go...

Giveaway Winner
The winner of the Wanchai Ferry/Macaroni Grill prize pack (via MyBlogSpark) is...

Molly P.! Congrats Molly! I'll send you an email shortly. Her favorite date night memory: "...homemade chili cheese fries and the Celtics, viewed in hi-def glory in our living room. We made the chili in a crock pot and had that hang out and get tastier as the day went on, and we made the fries in our deep fryer (best exchange of ugly Christmas clothes from Macy's EVER)."

What should I review?
CSN stores - where you can find everything from adjustable bar stools to diaper bags to cat trees - is giving me the chance to review another product of my choosing. (In the past, I reviewed a pasta machine, and I've got an ice cream maker sitting around waiting to be tried as well.) I'm at a loss for what to choose this time...a Dutch oven, maybe? (Joel snickers when I suggest a Dutch oven. I'll let you look that one up on Urban Dictionary yourself if you're unfamiliar with the slang definition.) If you could have any kitchen gadget or appliance, what would you want?

Upcoming Posts
I have a mega backlog of photos and partially written posts. I've been very busy with my alter-ego as a musician, so the food writing has taken a temporary backseat. (There's also the day job in there somewhere.) In the near future, you'll be seeing some cookbook and book reviews, a review of Foundry on Elm, a recap of a panel discussion on sustainable food-related businesses, a recap of a blogger brunch at Boston's only Australian restaurant, KO Catering & Pies, more cupcake questing (does it ever end?), and some other stuff. It's all coming soon, I promise! In the meantime, why not take a look at the giant post before this? It's long, but if you're into local food and/or economics, I think you may enjoy it.

Ok, more interesting stuff coming soon. Probably tomorrow. I promise. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Economics of Local Food

Note: Earlier this year, I completed my master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. For our capstone project, we were required to write a magazine-style non-fiction narrative story of about 3000 words. Mine somehow got out of the science realm and into the food/economics realm. After putting months of work into this story, I'd been planning on trying to get it published somewhere, but I felt like the topic was a bit overdone, so I never got around to submitting it anywhere. Anyway, it seems like a shame to just let it sit on my hard drive after all the time I spent on it (and all the time my wonderful interviewees spent teaching me about the history and economics of local food). It's on the long side for a blog post, but I hope you'll find it enjoyable and maybe educational. I'm going to embed some more photos into it soon, but for now, here's the text in full. Thanks for reading.

At 4:30 on a gray November afternoon, I stood alone in a parking lot near Central Square in Cambridge, warily waiting for a van. When it arrived, the driver swung open the back doors to reveal a refrigeration unit filled with coolers. Inside, I saw pork butt, lamb chops, liverwurst, pigs' legs - meat of all kinds, neatly packaged in airtight plastic with printed labels. My apprehension lessened as others arrived and began to purchase meat. This was a "Meat Meet," a sporadic, unofficial version of a Community-Supported Agriculture program (CSA) organized by JJ Gonson, a private chef and “locavore,” and Katie Stillman, owner of Stillman's at the Turkey Farm in Hardwick, a tiny town 20 miles west of Worcester. Several times a month throughout the winter, a Stillman’s van arrives at a pre-determined drop-off spot, and anyone can come and buy meat. Word spreads mainly by mouth; I learned of the Meat Meet that very morning thanks to a vague message posted by Gonson on Twitter. It was the first Meat Meet of the season, and only five people, including me, showed up. The others stocked up on several meals’ worth of meat, but I just bought four lamb chops and prepared them for dinner that night. They were probably the most delicious lamb chops I had ever eaten.

This is what eating local food is all about - sometimes it takes a little bit of foraging to find it. From farmers markets to Meat Meets to CSAs (programs where you buy shares of a farm in exchange for produce), it can take a lot of time and effort to find, purchase, and cook exclusively local products.  Cost is a big issue as well: local food has earned the reputation of being an elitist movement, only available to those who can afford it. But when we stop looking at the prices solely from the consumer's standpoint, it's clear there's a bigger picture. Production costs, labor costs, and many other factors go into that number on the price tag, and though we're used to seeing the artificially low prices that come out of the industrial food system, we can come to accept the "high" prices of food coming out of our local small farms as we examine the intangible benefits that those prices include. As Boston's local food movement grows, the issues of affordability and accessibility will become more complex. However, a mix of policy changes, education, and cooperation between producers and consumers can lead to a better food system that benefits everyone.

Eating locally is certainly not a new idea. At the time of the United States’ birth, 90% of the labor force was made up of farmers. Since nearly everyone lived and worked on farms, everyone ate local food. There was no technology, need, or desire to get produce from another part of the country. New England was largely food self-sufficient, although a larger Atlantic trade economy did exist: sugar, rum, coffee, and tea were major imports, and salt cod and other fish were important exports.  Then, the end of the Civil War brought about a radical shift as the Midwest - full of vast, rich farmland - opened up.  New England still had its own booming dairy industry, but more grain and other products were coming in from across the country.  Grain was needed not only for the people but also for the growing populations of cattle, hens, and other farm animals.  (The pigs, however, were fed on dairy waste products - whey - and garbage from the cities.) The total number of farms in the United States skyrocketed from the 1880s until the 1930s. By the '30s, the United States population exceeded 100 million, and there were over 6 million farms. But in the '40s, the number of farms began to decrease, although farm size increased. World War II took farmers away from the land, sending them off to war or into the cities to work industrial jobs. By the end of the war, new technology facilitated long-distance shipping of foods. Refrigeration units had already been around for awhile, but they were first installed in trucks in the middle of the century. Fruit and vegetables could now be shipped from one side of the country to the other. Cheap oil and transportation coupled with increasingly expensive land in New England led to a sharp decline in farming in the Northeast; it was easier and cheaper to import food from other parts of the country. Local food became a thing of the past.

Pioneers like Alice Waters, founder of the famed Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse, brought local food back into the spotlight in the 1970s, and slowly, some consumers started to seek out local, seasonal produce instead of mass-produced food from across the country. It has emerged as even more of a dedicated movement in recent years, due in part to books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Michael Pollan, 2006) and Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser, 2001). Pollan, Schlosser, and others have brought to our attention the negative effects of the corporatization of food. Large-scale health scares in the last few years – tainted milk in China, salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in the United States, a listeriosis outbreak in Canada – have scared consumers into wanting to know exactly where their food is produced.  Even First Lady Michelle Obama is a vocal supporter of local food, and the White House chef uses ingredients grown right on the White House lawn.  Journalists, restaurateurs, and policy makers are returning us to a focus on food as "something other than what you eat to stay alive," as I was told by Dr. Tim Griffin, Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Massachusetts is an ideal spot for an active local food movement: with nearly 200 farmers markets, four distinct seasons, and a wide variety of native crops like corn and cranberries, the conditions are ripe for consumers to build nutritional and fulfilling diets.  Griffin points to Boston's food culture, much like that of the Bay Area of San Francisco, as a driving factor.  Dr. Brian Donahue, Associate Professor of American Environmental Studies at Brandeis University and a farmer at Land's Sake Farm in Weston, thinks it's because Boston's a "liberal hippie kind of place going back to the 70s."  (Many of those hippies are now running the state of Vermont, he noted, having recently attended a seminar in Vermont where lawmakers and activists discussed making the state entirely food self-sufficient.)

Although living off the land has been connected with an earth-loving hippie type of movement in the past, eating healthy, fresh food is universally enjoyable.  Pollan and Schlosser and safety scares aside, there are simple reasons that many consumers desire local food. At the most basic but perhaps most important level, it just tastes good.  "Something tastes better when it's most recently taken from the plant," said Jim Ward, farmer and co-owner of Ward's Berry Farm in my hometown of Sharon.  "A tomato is something that's completely different once it's been harvested green and ripened somewhere along the way."

While taste is a priority for nearly all consumers, most are also concerned about health. Although not much research has been done yet in this field, local food is likely healthier than mass-produced food as it is free of the preservatives that are required to keep foods on supermarket shelves for weeks or longer. Even with preservatives added, vegetables do lose important nutrients such as ascorbic acid and folic acid while in storage. Local produce is more likely to make it to your table before much nutritional loss or spoilage has occurred.  In terms of food preparation, the fresher the ingredients, the more flavorful they are, so you don't have to add as many potentially unhealthy flavor enhancers like oil and salt, noted Gonson.

Some consumers eat local food out of a desire to put their money back into their own communities, buying directly from their farmers and cutting out the middlemen. A growing number of smaller farms are actually beginning to use middlemen in an effort to distribute their products more widely, but this is usually just a supplement to their direct sale model.  Red Tomato, a non-profit organization based in Canton, is one such company - they aggregate products from local farms and distribute them to a wide range of supermarkets, coops, and other places.

Eating locally may have its environmental advantages, too - a big sell in today's "going green"-concerned society. Since local food doesn’t need to travel far, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, although some scientists argue that “food miles” are not a good measure of the impact of local versus non-local food production.  For one thing, Griffin explained to me, food miles don't take into account mode of transport: a boat is likely more efficient than a train, which is more efficient than a truck, when you consider efficiency per pound of food per mile.  Secondly, food miles don't take into account the consumers' miles traveled.  Perhaps food from a small farm in western Massachusetts travels just 100 miles to a downtown Boston farmers market, but hundreds of consumers travel from all over Massachusetts by car and train to go to that farmers market instead of driving a couple miles down the street to their local supermarket. Griffin also noted that the food mile metric is based on research from 15-20 years ago; not much recent data is available to prove food miles' usefulness.  A better metric, according to a 2008 review in Trends in Food Science and Technology, is carbon labeling, where produce would bear labels, much like a nutritional label, detailing the carbon footprint.  Greenhouse gases are caused by more than just the miles traveled by the food and by the consumer: on-farm processes before transport and retailing and consumption activities after transport of the produce also add to the carbon footprint.

Although there are many reasons to eat locally, none of them matter much if the average consumer can't afford it. There are several reasons that local food tends to be so expensive, according to Dr. Charlie French, a Community and Economic Development Specialist at the University of New Hampshire who has done extensive research on local food systems and local economic development. A big part of the problem is that large corporate farms have received much more support from government subsidies than the small local farms, at least until the most recent farm bill, so the smaller farms have to keep prices high just to stay afloat. It's also due to an economy of scale: large farms are able to save money on supplies and transportation due to their bulk production, whereas small farms don’t get the advantage of wholesale discounts. Small farms are also unlikely to have the manpower to take care of all of the needs of a business: marketing the food is just as important as producing and shipping it. “I hate to use a Darwinian term, but in a way it's survival of the fittest,” said French. “The best managed, the best run enterprises, the people with the most skill in both marketing and production are going to be the ones that are going to survive.”

The subsidy problem runs deep, and it’s out of consumers’ hands to fix it, but the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill is at least a first step. “It's scratching the surface,” said French. “It's starting to address some of the inequities between small farm versus large farm, but we're still not there yet, and that's something that really needs to change if the economics of local foods are going to have a fair advantage.” The 2008 bill includes money set aside specifically to expand aid for local, organic, and small farms, and a new program called Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) is beginning to reform the subsidy system. Under the previous bill, farmers’ prices were protected, but loss in crop yield was not. The new bill protects revenue, which is the yield multiplied by the price, rather than just price. ACRE is meant to be a safety net: farmers receive help only when they need it, whereas older subsidy systems wasted money by paying out regardless of profit loss.

On a consumer level, for prices to come down, demand needs to go up. “Growing the market share for local foods is critical,” said French. “Right now there are estimates out there that somewhere around 5% of food purchases are local purchases.” Even increasing that amount to 10% over the next 10 years or so could help local food prices decrease, according to French. “Building awareness in local food, building interest in local food, is the critical element to making it viable.”

Maybe the prices shouldn't come down, though.  From a consumer standpoint, sure, we want to buy good food without spending all our money.  But what about the producers?  "As we've put in place effort after effort after effort to make the system more efficient, one of the direct results of that is that it keeps driving the cost of the food down and down and down, which is great for you if you're buying it.  It's not so great for the person that's growing it," said Griffin. "So where's the balance point there?"  A good deal of consumers buy local food with the stated intention of wanting to support their communities, all the while complaining that the price is too high - the very price that directly supports the community farmers they claim to want to support.  Perhaps it's our mindset that needs to change, not the price.

From the farmers' point of view, prices are determined by a wide range of factors including labor, transport of materials such as fertilizer and packaging, and more. "Price-wise, I don't think there's any going back. I really don't," Ward told me as he put away a tray of lettuce seeds and began to distribute onion seeds in a planting tray. "I won't say my ears are deaf to it, 'cause I hear it, but I don't think it's a justified complaint. I just look at the cost of production. We have to pay real wages and provide health benefits and have all the costs of production of a developed world and we'd like to also make a living."

Of course, whether or not the price is justified, there are still people who just can't afford it.  "We need to be addressing the problem of why that is, not necessarily trying to lower the cost of food," said Donahue, who guesses that the majority of Americans could afford to pay more for food by shifting some of their disposable income in that direction. "What's really important about farming isn't just producing the commodity in the cheapest way, but all the benefits we might get from it," said Donahue. "We ought to reorganize it around those benefits as much as we can: an attractive landscape, not soiling the environment, engaging people with it in a whole variety of ways...Those things are at least as important as the price of the food itself." But for those who can't afford to take the other benefits into account, there's still hope.  Many farms set aside a few CSAs, paid for by donations from shareholders, to be shipped to food banks in the area.  A Concord farm, Gaining Ground, operates as a non-profit and donates 100% of its produce to food banks and meal programs within the Boston area. Food stamps are now accepted at many farmers markets. The Boston Bounty Bucks program gives a 50% discount on farmers market purchases up to $20 to consumers utilizing their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

While the affordability issues may take years to address through government initiatives and the work of non-profits, the accessibility of local food can change virtually overnight. Committing to eating locally takes a lot of effort and may be difficult for people working full-time jobs or for others who just don’t know where to look or how to cook, but thanks to the efforts of local food enthusiasts like Gonson, events and programs are sprouting up throughout the Boston area providing would-be locavores more opportunities to eat locally. As word spreads about Meat Meets, “underground” dinner parties that bring strangers together to eat local foods, and other unconventional dining options, the movement will continue to grow, at least for those who can afford it. Over time, the extra attention will hopefully trickle down in donations of time and money to programs that will help everyone enjoy local food. Increased press coverage is already converting new locavores. When I attended a second Meat Meet in November, there were two student journalists there reporting local food stories, and this time, there were more than twenty people in line waiting to buy meat. “At any given moment, there are a lot of causes that are vying for the attention of the media," Gonson told me. “When it's your group that's having that moment, you ride it. You grab it and hold onto it tight and use it, because work gets done when there's attention being paid by the media. And the exciting thing is that there is work being done.”

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