Jan 04 2011

Book Review: The Town that Food Saved

My mother loves to clip out articles from newspapers and magazines and send them my way.  These clippings run the gamut from recipes, to health tips, to local interest stories from my hometown, and to anything related to food.  I’ve received recipes for Danish rice pudding (yum!), opinion editorials written by my father, and articles about such varied topics as a heritage livestock preservation facility in Rhode Island and Hardwick, an ailing town in Vermont ‘uniting around food’.

I remember reading the article about Hardwick, thinking ‘that seems like an interesting place’, and then quickly moving on.  The article talked about the town’s burgeoning food enterprises, including a Vermont Food Venture Center.  I figured that when Justin and I finally made it to Vermont, I’d have a bare-bones memory of the article and would be able to sift around the internet to recall the name of the town again.  Fast forward a year and a half:  though we still haven’t made it to Vermont, I’m now quite familiar with the town of Hardwick and could easily rattle off the names of farmers and ‘agrepreneurs’ (food-based entrepreneurs) based in and around this small town. This past summer, I bought a book that delves deeper into the Hardwick food renaissance:  The Town that Food Saved.

For example, I now know that Hardwick used to be one of the world’s biggest suppliers of granite and fell on hard times after the granite boom ended and the dairy farmers began leaving the area.  In the late 1960s and early 70s Hardwick became a destination for many ‘Back to the Land’ hippies, seeking a simpler life.  And I also know about Hardwick’s present position as a model for building a community around decentralized, local food.  Thanks to Ben Hewitt’s honest, intimate, and humble look at his neighboring Vermont town, when we finally do travel to Vermont, I already feel intimately connected to Claire’s, Hardwick’s beloved local restaurant.  And in my daily life in New York, the next time I’m wandering the aisles of Whole Foods, I plan on checking if the store carries Vermont Soy. When The New Amsterdam Market opens for the season and I make a beeline for The Cellars at Jasper Hill, I’ll have a better grasp of their beginnings and hopes for the future.

The name, “The Town That Food Saved”, is a bit of a misnomer.  Hardwick’s story is hardly an ‘A leads to B’ situation.  It would be much simpler to say that the town was on the edge of extinction before a few local food ventures swooped in and look—everyone is bonding over Pete’s Greens and slaughtering their own animals.  The articles I had read prior to reading this book—and the book’s cover and front flap—made Hardwick seem Utopian, idealized…and completely unrealistic.  I bought this book with the hopes that it wouldn’t be a fluff piece about the joys of local food.  I wasn’t disappointed:  within the first several pages, Hewitt was sharing gems like, “We need to rethink our entire food supply chain for reasons of economic security, healthy security, and social security.  It’s time to rescale and decentralize.”

Author Ben Hewitt offers a unique perspective on Hardwick.  He’s neither a reporter nor a new visitor to the town. Instead, he’s a farmer from Cabot, VT, a neighboring town to Hardwick.  Before writing “The Town that Food Saved”, Hewitt was close to or at least familiar with the majority of people involved in Hardwick’s local food scene.  Ben had originally been tapped by Gourmet to write an article about Hardwick’s developing food movement.  While writing the article, Ben couldn’t rid himself of a nagging feeling that he needed to delve deeper into the story and not gloss over certain issues.  So, when he began to think about how to conceptualize the book, he was aware of the impact the book could have on his friends and neighbors.  Throughout his research and interviews, Hewitt mostly listened, making sure to seek out differing perspectives and parties.

Hewitt’s book is filled with several quotable gems.  He shows an empathetic understanding of the current state of America’s agricultural system.  His tone is neither angry nor simpering, but rather an accepted realization of why the majority of Americans have disconnected themselves from the sources of their food.

“Let’s face it:  Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay.  By relinquishing this burden, by handing the reins to the corporations, we relieve ourselves of a lot of backaches, sunburns, and financial strains.  We struck a deal:  The agribusinesses got a guaranteed chunk of our income and our full faith in their ability to keep us sustained.  In return, we got to pursue lifestyles that don’t revolve around soil and toil and that allow us a measure of leisure time unprecedented in human history….”

As long as corporations keep their end of the bargain, it’s a pretty sweet deal, presuming one overlooks the pallid, depleted nature of the foodstuffs they’re providing.  But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that they won’t be able to hold up their end of the bargain forever.”

This respectfully opinionated tone is carried throughout the book.  Hewitt is quick to point out that Hardwick doesn’t have a packaged model or framework that can be shared with the rest of the world.   He asks, “is there a version of agriculture that is sustainable AND can feed 7 billion people?  NO.  Production must happen, but a production that is lower impact, low input distribution.”

Here are the tangible aspects of Hardwick’s admirable position in the food world that are translatable:

1)    Hardwick articulates circular agriculture: the town has a seed producer, a composter, and multiple veggie growers.

2)    A Healthy Food System Should:

a.    Offer economic viability to small scale food producers.

b.    Be based on sunshine (and thus decentralized)

c.    Feed the locals (by finding a way around the cost issue)

d.    Be circular

The measure of a local food system is only partly the system itself.  Hewitt implores his readers to judge local food systems in the context of where they currently are:  systems must be measured against whatever alternatives already exist.  Ultimately, Ben believes that community engagement and connection is the defining characteristic of a successful decentralized food system:  “you assume a level of responsibility for the very thing that keeps you alive.”  The current Hardwick agricultural movement is rooted in food and provides an outlet for communal engagement and citizenal democracy. And I, for one, am looking forward to a future visit to Claire's!