The words “local, seasonal, sustainable” have been repeated so often and with so little thought that they have become soothing background noise, feel-good mood-music for any socially conscious eater worth his or her naturally obtained organic sea salt. So it’s refreshing to encounter a book that treats the subject intelligently.
Was it Holden Caulfield who said that the measure of a good book was one that makes you want to call up the author on the phone?
Reading Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved impelled me to pay a visit to the author at his home, a raggedy farmstead at the end of a rutted, muddy, unmarked lane tucked among the folds and hollows of north-central Vermont.
Tall and lanky, Hewitt is in his late thirties and grew up in rural, working-class Vermont. His formal education ended before he completed high school. On the morning we met, his red knit cap was flecked with bits of hay, and he wore a faded blue shirt and olive-green work pants dabbed with either mud or manure from the dozen-or-so cows and sheep in the shed next to his house.
The central character in Hewitt’s book is the town of Hardwick, about eight miles from where he lives. A half-burned-out commercial building dominates the main intersection. It’s an apt metaphor for the one-blinking-light village. Between 1880 and 1920, Hardwick prospered. It was a major source of granite for the building trade. When reinforced concrete replaced rock as a construction material, the community fell into decay. Today, the town’s name is rarely seen in print without the adjective “hardscrabble.”
But Hardwick may be changing. A band of youthful, boundlessly articulate entrepreneurs are rebuilding the area’s economy on a foundation that may be more substantial than the bedrock on which its first boom was based: sustainable, local food production.
On the surface Hardwick’s rags-to-not-quite riches story has everything needed to appeal to diehard foodies. As Hewitt writes, “To the enterprising freelance journalist (c’est moi), it presented itself as a gift, neatly wrapped in recycled paper and adorned with a big, fat biodegradable bow.”
Whether food has really saved Hardwick is a matter of some debate, which, to his credit, Hewitt airs thoroughly and without bias. But there can be no argument that food has given the town its 15 minutes of fame and then some. Write-ups have appeared in the late Gourmet magazine, Condé Nast Traveler and the New York Times. Emeril Legasse even visited town to film an episode of “Emeril Green.”
Hewitt is an amiable skeptic and a storyteller of rare skill who seems incapable of crafting a dull sentence. He calls his tale’s key players agrepreneurs. Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds is the movement’s hyperkinetic mouthpiece. Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens combines unbridled ambition with an entrepreneurial green thumb. Andy and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm quietly produce $15-a-pound artisanal cheese that may provide a value-added financial model for dairy farmers struggling under depressed milk prices. A few dozen other well-drawn characters populate this bucolic foodscape. Many came from “away” with their degrees from prestigious liberal arts colleges. Most are fond of articulating the philosophical underpinnings of their agrarian ventures. None see any contradiction between doing good work and making money—preferably lots of it.
Undeniably their efforts have brought 125 jobs to an area where every job counts. In doing so, they have created a vibrant, mutually supportive community centered around food. But Hewitt is also well aware of the ironies and shortcomings of the locavore trend and its upscale cachet. In a town of 3,200 which still has a median income 25 percent below the state’s average and an unemployment rate 40 percent above it, real locals are more likely to buy processed cheese food from the Grand Union supermarket than pick up a piece of artisanal blue cheese from the farmers’ market, more likely to dine on $3.38 chicken fried rice at the Yummy Wok than venture across main Street into Claire’s, a “community supported restaurant” that features local fare and offers $9 vegetable tagines and $24 grass-fed steaks that can be washed down with a selection of decidedly non-local wines.
In the course of researching “The Town That Food Saved,” Hewitt found that the issue of food systems was far more complex than he had first thought. “I wanted to ask what it really means to create a localized food system,” he told me over coffee, one of the few items on his daily menu that he does not produce. “It’s hard—culturally, economically, and in terms of people’s habits. Readers looking for empirical answers should look elsewhere. In a way, this book is more about questions than answers.”
Still, Hewitt comes away feeling that Hardwick’s recent history may be providing a template for a food system that could save all of us. “The fact is that our nation’s food supply has never been more vulnerable. And we, as consumers of food, share that vulnerability, having slowly, inexorably relinquished control over the very thing that’s critical to our survival,” Hewitt writes. What is at risk, he contends, is the entire model of the way we nourish ourselves. Fixing this broken model is a matter of national urgency.
Should our industrial food system collapse, the Hewitt family (which includes his wife and two young boys) will have far less to worry about than most of us. They raise 80 percent of the food they eat: in addition to all their vegetables, they produce milk, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, eggs, blueberries, raspberries, apples, and maple syrup. Their house, which they built with help from friends, gets its electricity from solar panels and its heat from woodstoves.
Where does that leave the rest of us? “For 100 years food production has been headed in one direction,” Hewitt told me. “The people I profile are all articulating steps to get us going in a different direction.”