In a story with implications for small towns nationwide, The New York Times today reported on the relentless hardships a locavore restaurateur has encountered in southwest Virginia.
Steven Hopp--an Iowa-born ornithologist married to author Barbara Kingsolver, whose best-selling memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life agitated countless city-dwellers to re-examine their food sourcing-serves Virginia wine, buys ramps from foragers, and has planted a fruit orchard. But he still has to plead with farmers to plant greens instead of tobacco and persuade townspeople that his lamb-sausage burritos aren't costly.
"I've heard it's expensive, so I've never been in," Bobbie Cornett, who works next door, told reporter Jane Black. "Well, that's not true; I got a can of pop there once."
While Hopp surely hasn't exaggerated his struggles, the story's headline, "Local Food Has Been No Easy Sell in Appalachia," does a disservice to a region that's no more wary of local food than other cash-strapped communities where eaters aren't under the sway of Alice Waters.
More significantly, though, the story perpetuates the dangerous myth that local food is so obviously preferable to industrial food that opening new food-supply channels is all that's needed to repair the country's disordered eating habits. That same faulty logic underlies Mark Bittman's recent argument that a regressive 20 percent tax on sugary drinks would force Americans to rethink their diets.
If local food proponents are serious about their cause, they need to work harder: Giving out greens and withholding Dr Pepper is not a solution--nor is the "if they knew what was good for them" approach doing activists any favors. Rather than whining about regular folks not flocking to an outsider-run restaurant serving "salad pizza" and fennel pasta, perhaps locavores should get to know the eaters they're claiming to serve.
That's what Nate Allen, chef and proprietor of Knife & Fork, did. Allen's restaurant recently celebrated its second anniversary in Spruce Pine, N.C., a high mountain town that's home to 2,030 people and has a 14 percent unemployment rate.
Allen and his wife, Wendy, were accomplished private chefs in Los Angeles, but wanted to open a restaurant close to Wendy's childhood home, one county over. At the start, Allen says, Spruce Pine residents wanted nothing to do with his sweet potato waffles and rabbit rillettes.
"They wanted meat and three," Allen says, referring to the staple Southern plate. "They wanted another restaurant serving Sysco products."
So Allen lured diners with locally sourced meatloaf and pulled-pork sandwiches, which proved to be gateway plates for a number of skeptics. The town manager, whose initial misgivings about the project were so intense that Allen feared he'd turn off the restaurant's water to make his point, visited the restaurant half a dozen times, ordering the meatloaf at every meal.
"Finally, one night, he calls me over," Allen recalls. "He'd had the stuffed pork belly, and he told me, 'What the hell? This is the best thing I ever put in my mouth. When I saw it up on the board, I thought that's just streaky meat. What's a city boy going to do with streaky meat? But this is a game changer.' "
The manager's now a regular customer, and Knife & Fork has become the top restaurant choice for local prom-goers. While Allen has grown accustomed to passersby walking into the restaurant, reading the menu, and storming out with a sneer, he says many townspeople appreciate the restaurant's friendliness and low prices.
"We're not just a bunch of weird queers from California," Allen says. "We're trying to give everyone a fair shake."
Allen says he's often been so frustrated he's considered getting out of the business, but his low moods have been tempered by moments of "elation." "There are yahoos and yokels in every part of the world," he says.
"If you feel like local food is a tough sell in Appalachia, you're not giving it all you've got," he says.