When summer ended, there was an almost-audible sigh across the farmers market down the street from our office—no more plums, or strawberries, or corn. No more asparagus or tomatoes for an entire season. What will we do?
But after picking up Mario Batali's most recent book, America: Farm to Table, we were reminded of an important truth: The book proclaims from every page that there is no such things as a void left by produce. When one season ends, it's time to rejoice the return of another season—even if that season happens to produce a lot of tubers. Here, Mario Batali shares with us the value of eating "farm to table" year-round—and why this season is actually his favorite for ingredients:
Why did you feel it was important to write America Farm to Table? And why now?
For a long time, the mainstream food world has been focusing stories on chefs and restaurants. And though no one doubts the time and energy that goes into kitchen work (which is something I know very well), somewhere along the line, we forgot to celebrate the true heroes: the people that grow and raise the food we cook. Chefs get all the glory but farmers are the true rock stars. I wanted to highlight a few of my farmer heroes in this book, and give them an opportunity to tell their story.
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My co-author, Jim Webster, went around the country to interview and spend time with these farmers. He visited friends like Jim Bartenhagen in Suttons Bay, Michigan who grows both apples and sweet and tart cherries (of course). He also visited Tim Stark from Eckerton Hill Farm in Lobachsville, Pennsylvania. Tim is always at the Union Square Farmers Market and sells insanely delicious tomatoes and other vegetables.
Jim also met with Jeff “Smokey” Mckeen, an oyster farmer from Rockland, Maine who runs Pemaquid Oyster Company—and getting a glimpse into his world was amazing. Smokey farms from a floating dock and raises a crop of 1 1/2 million oysters. Quite admirable. All of these farmers, they get up every morning and work their asses off to bring superior ingredients to our markets and kitchens. This is why I wanted to honor them.
How can "farm to table" become the way we eat, instead of just a trend?
Well, there are two big reasons why we should support local small farming. First, by supporting local farmers, we have the chance to directly impact regional economic development as well as nutrition. Second, sourcing high-quality, delicious ingredients will elevate and simplify the home cooks’ potential to create restaurant-level food.
To me, a “movement” that adds so much value to our lives on a daily basis should never been seen as a trend. These days, we are more aware of the impact our everyday acts can make. Like composting or recycling, eating farm to table should be a healthy habit we don’t quit! That said, it’s not easy or realistic for everyone to live this way, and I’m not suggesting we ban mass markets or bodegas—even if you’re buying just one apple from the market, you’re doing your part to help.
What do you think is the most effective way to inspire people to cook at home?
Go to the market and cook a meal from what’s available and in season, rather then following a recipe to a tee—getting outside your comfort zone can help you realize a love for a vegetable you may never have seen before. Right now, for example, cardoons are in season. Most people don’t cook with cardoons often but they are so wonderful this time of year. They look more intimidating than they really are and they have incredible versatility.
How has your upbringing in Washington state, which had a thriving rural farm community, influenced the way you cook today and your decision to write this book?
Growing up outside of Seattle, Washington, we'd forage for berries and pickle vegetables on weekends. This wasn’t a trendy thing back then; it was an act born out of not having a ton of money, but having abundant produce right outside our door. It was what we did and it was all I knew as a kid but it stuck with me, this idea of using what’s locally delicious.
What ingredients inspire you currently?
This is my favorite time of year at the market. I’m loving oyster and cremini mushrooms, sweet potatoes and tubers of all colors of the rainbow, and acorn squash, which I love to stuff with lamb and mint. It’s my take on stuffed peppers, but the lamb really echoes the sweetness of the squash much better than beef would.
What do you want people to know and take away from this book?
If you have a pristine seasonal ingredient, let it speak for itself. When it’s perfect, you don’t need to go crazy with prepping. Let it sing.
Do you have any favorite farmers or farmers markets? Are there any ingredients you're particularly excited about right now? Tell us in the comments below!
Top photo by Gab Herman; photos of book by Rocky Luten; all others by James Ransom