Grit Blogs > Waking up in Kansas

The Kind of Difference YOU Can Make

By K.C. Compton

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KC ComptonOn a recent trip to Northern California, I had one of the best meals of my life. It was a shared dinner with my daughter and son-in-law, which certainly added to the overall wonderfulness of the experience.

But what’s more pertinent to GRIT readers is the food itself and the restaurant’s approach to local, organic ingredients.

A telling moment occurred earlier in the trip when my kids and I were looking for a lunch spot and I said, “I’d rather have someplace that does local and organic, if possible.” They looked at me with kind-hearted incomprehension, then my daughter said, “Well, around here they’d just about all be organic. And I don’t think any of the food comes from very far away.”

Oh, yeah. Northern California. I guess the choices are fairly prodigious thereabouts. In fact, thanks to Alice Waters and others, the Bay Area has been at this “local, organic” paradigm somewhat longer than the rest of us, so some restaurants have had time to hone their kitchen craft to the level of art. Gather is one of those restaurants.

Located at 2200 Oxford Street in Berkeley, Gather supports local food producers and chooses only foods that are cultivated “safely, justly and sustainably.” Lest that description makes you think the food is some sort of boring take-your-medicine-it’s-good-for-you fare, let me tell you the precise opposite is true. Co-owners Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster have mastered the nourishment paradigm from soup to nuts. And, oh my, those desserts.

And the reason I bring it to your attention is because, if you are a food grower, this is the kind of food you can be making sure we all get to eat. From the roasted ‘Blue Ballet’ squash to the grilled watermelon radish and the smoked potato-mushroom pizza, the food was clean, fresh and brimming with flavor. Much of the art was in its presentation, and we sat at the bar next to the prep area, so we got a good demonstration of how they created such lovely plates. The flavor combinations were surprising – “roasted fall roots, fried capers, pine nuts and Fiscalini cheese,” or “roasted carnival squash, sunchoke-cashew bay leaf sauce” – but nothing tasted fussy or overly complicated.

Their “Source Book,” available by request, lists the origin of every item on the menu. Just imagine if a restaurant near you did that and heirloom tomatoes from your market garden were right there on the list.

The really cool thing is that I know the next time I go there – and there will be many next times, I promise you – the menu will have changed completely, depending on what food is available that season and in their particular region.

So none of what they cook might be what you could cook or grow, but the model is one any of us can replicate: Grow great organic food right where we’re planted, find inventive ways to put it together and share it with as many people as possible.

Voila! The world starts to change and our taste buds do a little happy dance – nourishment at its very best.

k.c. compton
11/26/2010 1:55:19 PM

Hi Cindy: Yes, I agree that these great local-and-organic restaurants are very pricey. I hope that as the demand grows and people see the value, the price will come down. I also think these restaurants are great just because they open up entirely new possibilities for those of us civilians who want to explore new and inventive ways of serving the great produce we increasingly have available to us. Mmmmmm, homemade gelato. I went to Italy a couple of years ago and one of the things I remember best is the abundance of lovely gelato wherever we went. And the little Mom & Poppa gelato stores had such delicious offerings -- I thought they must be making it in little ice-cream makers in the back room. I'd be most disappointed to discover they were just little branches of the Italian equivalent of Baskin-Robbins. :=] --KC

cindy murphy
11/24/2010 8:27:17 AM

Smoked potato/mushroom pizza...sounds delicious, KC! Being in Michigan's "Fruit Belt" (though there are plently of vegetables too; I suppose when accessorizing, fruit belts are more fashionable than veggie belts though), we've got at least a couple restaurants that I know of in the area that only serve organic, local foods. Though I hear the food is wonderful, we haven't been yet. They are quite pricey, I understand - more than a family of four on a "meals out" budget can afford to spend for a single dinner. It's a shame, I think, that "local and organic" often translates into expensive. Kinda of a cool thing I saw in the grocery store yesterday - a cooler filled with locally produced gelato. This stuff is to die for, and the family who makes it has been selling to these same restaurants, and a few select others in the area for a couple of years. The dessert has become quite popular by word of mouth, so it was neat to see it available in the grocery. What's neat too is remembering selling them the fruit trees and plants at the nursery when they just started out. It may be rare that we are willing to spring for a $100+ dinner, but a $5 pint of heaven in a container gelato is a different story! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

k.c. compton
11/19/2010 9:54:33 AM

Ha! Yes, but there COULD be. Root vegetables keep a long time ... onions ... apples and pears [I still have some in my fridge from my friends' farm and they're nowhere close to over]. Greens in cold frames ... It's more challenging here in the Heartland -- I haven't had the nerve to try the 100-mile diet yet -- but I do think our readers can contribute enormously to the entire conversation, both by growing and selling local produce, and also by requesting it. These days, in the summer, I'll always ask a restaurant if the tomatoes are local and if they aren't, if they'd consider it, please. It KILLS me to be in Kansas, home of the enthusiastic tomato, and have those mealy, icky store-boughten tomatoes served as if they have anything to do with the real thing. I like that you allow yourself one morning of cholesterol extravaganza. Nothing like a plate of gravy and biscuits every now and then to keep one from feeling too put-upon by a healthy diet. :=]

nebraska dave
11/18/2010 10:52:46 PM

@K.C. I expect there are places here that serve organic food but local food I don’t think so. Not many vegetable get grown locally. Oh, yeah, they have the farmer’s market during the summer months and roadside stands in season but it’s really not enough to supply a restaurant. You have seen my eating habits. They are traditional country meat, potatoes, and corn or beans. Biscuits with gravy, bacon, eggs, sausage are all on the menu. Well, sometimes they are on the menu. The heavy cholesterol stuff normally happens on Saturday morning. All during the week, it is oatmeal, fiber one, whole grain bread with a little jelly, baked potatoes, some fruit, and very little meat. The closest I come to eating organic is from my own garden. There’s no fertilizer, or pesticides nor is there any chemicals of any kind. The tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, onions, and potatoes were wonderful additions to the meals all summer long. Have a great organic day.